What Photographers Need to Know About Blockchain
January 15, 2018
As we write this, the cyber currency Bitcoin has grown nearly 1,000 percent since the start of 2017. Chances are, you didn’t invest in Bitcoin. Neither did we. But whether it crashes and burns or continues its dizzying ascent, there’s a good chance photographers are going to profit from the technology that makes Bitcoin possible.
Bitcoin is built on a form of secure digital record-keeping called blockchain. There’s a lot that goes into blockchain technology (mostly math), but for the sake of simplification you can think of it as a chronological string of encrypted digital records stored on a peer-to-peer network. There are different types of blockchains but for the purposes of this article, we’re referring to the Bitcoin-type blockchain.
One of the central values of blockchain technology is that the digital records it stores are incredibly secure and resistant to tampering, which is the reason it’s being used for digital money, where the incentive to hack and create forgeries is very high. It may not be immediately intuitive, but having an immutable record can be very valuable for photographers as well. For one thing, you can securely link and store metadata information with your image—information like copyright registration and usage rights—in the blockchain. Several companies, such as Binded, ImageRights and Ascribe, have recently embraced blockchain technology to do just that.
As ImageRights’ CEO Joe Naylor tells us, when an ImageRights user first submits an image to the U.S. Copyright Office, the company will now create a record with the image thumbnail, date and type of copyright registration and store it in the blockchain. If the company discovers an infringing use of that image, it inscribes that data into the blockchain as well—with the date of the infringement. Naylor says this helps photographers, since the statute of limitations for pursuing a copyright claim is three years from the date of the infringement.
While ImageRights’ blockchain service is fairly new and has yet to be challenged in court, Naylor says the company has already used it successfully against infringers to win settlements. “It simplifies the settlement process” and has also helped the company prove that a specific copyright application covers a given image.
Naylor is quick to emphasize that a blockchain record is in no way a substitute for copyright registration. “We are only using it now to overcome objections and defensive arguments when we pursue an infringement claim,” he says.
But Naylor says that blockchain has more potential than just secure record-keeping. He’s particularly bullish on its use in image licensing. Blockchain can be used to create so-called “smart contracts.” Much like an API which defines how two software programs talk to each other and exchange information, a smart contract contains self-executing instructions that only trigger when parties to the contract fulfill their obligations. For photographers, image license rights can be established in a smart contract that’s stored on the blockchain, Naylor says. When an image is used per its license, the photographer automatically receives compensation. If a licensee attempts to use the image after the license has expired, their infringement is inscribed in the blockchain and they’re busted.
Not everyone is sold on the use of blockchain for image rights management. Copyright attorney Leslie Burns has outlined several objections here that are worth considering.