The Value of Being The One.

by: Larry W. Smith, Partner, Thematix

At any given moment something new, original, authentic, unique is being created; similarly, a finished item, artwork, artifact, or recording is being sold, or its rights transferred.

Valuation systems vary greatly, for example, contrast how artwork vs. automobiles vs. jewelry are valued. But one thing is common, everyone places a premium on the first, original or one-of-a-kind item over copies, duplicates, or forgeries. Here’s an example of the First Beatles White Album.

The digital world has never enjoyed these premium valuations. Quite the contrary, the very essence of computers are to have the ultimate copy machine that creates exact duplicates of a digital item as an essential act of its’ operations.

Scan a photo, download a song, email a document, put it on a web page or in a database — copies, copies, and more copies, all exact duplicates.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been used to prohibit copies and establish ownership. It has failed miserably time and again; no sooner a new technique, than a hack to break it.

It is now possible to create a new form of digital property ownership and representation, containing certain rights and duties, encoded and preserved in a system of distributed technologies and processes.

First, the item must exist with more richness than the item or copy itself. Techies often say the metadata is more important that the data. Core to this is the ability to place a digital item into a data graph where it can be associated and given relevance by occupying a position of existence. Just as a physical item lives in time and space, so too must a digital object when semantically described, permanently place (PURL or URI), and RDF coded.

Second, ownership rights and duties are encoded using Blockchain technology as used in Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Blockchain is a distributed ledger that will establish creation, provenance, and certain rights of ownership, assignment and sale.

The data graph and Blockchain work in concert to define a unique digital object and the rights associated with it by the creator, owner, benefactor, or assignee.

This is not DRM and there is no intention to prohibit copies. This enables one to declare ownership and to represent that ownership with any original copy within the digital environment for a digital object or artifact.

So what does this enable and why should anyone care? You could just use paper and existing laws and remedies; Creative Commons already exists and works fine.

There are four approaches and associated use cases.

Collectors & Collectables

People like to collect things and want proof of the exclusivity and authenticity. An iconic photograph often becomes a signed and limited numbered print worth substantially more than a mass produced poster version. You might want to collect it in the same way, bidding to have the “first, original digital copy” from the creator. This fact gets placed in the data graph and documented in the Blockchain. When you sell the “original” a record of provenance is recorded in the Blockchain. There is only one original and you have ownership proof; the creator also has proof.

Rights Assignment & Smart Contracts

As the creator of a digital item, you can sell and assign rights; this might be for reproduction in various media, term or time limits, usage (commercial, personal), and other factors that are equally transferable and durable. The ability to record these facts on paper in a legal document are easy, but subject to record retention issues so a digital and accessible version has great value. The blockchain contains information and locations that are easily accessible and durable. Billions of dollars in mortgages and other debts have been questioned because the lack of a paper trail.

Preservation, Curation and Access

Many material and digital things have been created and eventually disappeared. The reasons are many, but network distribution will help ensure existence and access. This could act or become the equivalent of a “multi-generational trust” that exists for digital items across decades, or as long as certain public data graphs and Blockchain miners exist. By definition a public ledge will increase preservation over a 2+ party record keeping system.


In the world of art, architecture, crafts and custom fabrications, the truth, identity and provenance are critical. In many cases, the object or property becomes separated or disassociated from its data. Simple information about creator, name/title, date, materials, and dimensions are rarely embeded into the object/property, and reside in certain repositories (books, magazines, websites) with no assurances of discoverability, durability, access, or authenticity.

Many industries have central Registry systems to house data and metadata about objects. Universal Product Codes (UPC), the bar code on everything sold in retail stores, are 40+ years old and number in the billions. In broadcast television, every commercial needs an Ad-ID. Every vehicle has both a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and license plate. Every page on the Internet also has a Unique Resource Identifier (URI) and often a Unique Resource Locator (URL).

Like the Internet and ICANN service, there can (and should) be multiple Registrars who feed and manage the Registry.

I would enjoy the opportunity to develop these ideas further. Please contact me to discuss them should you have an interest.

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