Blockchain Plus X

Lance Koonce
Apr 28, 2016 · 4 min read

By Lance Koonce

In a recent post on Medium, Jesse Walden of Mediachain explains that a “blockchain for music” must answer two questions. First, “whose song is this?” Second, “where is my money?”

It is well-known that a major problem with the music industry is that information about music — who holds the respective rights, how to contact those owners, even which performers actually performed on a recording — is a hopelessly tangled mess. Existing data is often full of errors, and in any event is tied up in multiple databases held by different entities.

As Walden notes, it is natural to look to blockchain technology as a magic fix that solves both of the above questions, by sorting out the ownership issues in a globally accessible database and facilitating easy transfers of royalties to the right parties.

But not so fast.

A distributed blockchain database may be great for the second aspect — facilitating payments — but it is limiting to think of “the blockchain” as a pure solution for the metadata problem. Walden argues that blockchain technology itself does not actually work well for storing music metadata:

The innovation of blockchains is enabling distributed consensus without needing to trust a central authority. This is possible at the cost of performance, making blockchains like those powering Bitcoin or Ethereum actually terrible databases for the scale of music metadata. Writes take a long time, capacity is small, and each update has a financial cost. Every participant must replicate all contents of the chain, even if there is useless data. While this is important to prevent “double spending” of digital currencies, it is unnecessary for tracking the chronology of media metadata. What’s needed instead is a decentralized datastore capable of scaling at low cost, while preserving the complex relationships and revision history of structured media metadata.

This is the point at which others may disagree with Walden’s premise. But his point is that rather than think of “the blockchain” as a solution, we should treat it as an analogy: What we really should be talking about is what is the right “shared, networked, media metadata” solution for the music information problem? He believes that this requires a decentralized network, unique identifiers for songs, interoperability, cryptographically-ensured attribution, and scalable, flexible storage.

Mediachain of course has its own solutions. But a larger point I take from Walden’s post, applicable to all content that we seek to manage using a blockchain-based system, is that when we move beyond simple registration and tracking of data (which includes hashed identification of particular assets), blockchains are always going to need to be supplemented by other systems in order to provide robust functionality. Most importantly, we need to think critically about how those systems need to be structured as well, because if they develop as a hodgepodge of centralized and decentralized platforms that don’t interoperate, we will end up with many of the same problems.

The fact is, many of the things we discuss when we talk about blockchain technology, especially outside of financial services, already involve the layering-on of other systems. Smart contracts, for instance. The blockchain is really just a new form of database, and it’s not as if we use our existing, centralized databases to perform functions that require complex functionality. Rather, databases serve up the information we use when performing those functions. This comes as no surprise to those knew-deep in developing blockchain-related solutions, but it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, especially for those new to the field.

This was one of my points yesterday in our post discussing the copyright first sale doctrine. The blockchain is not a magic bullet that solves that particular problem, but it is a way to lay down a global database that might serve as a building block for content transfer/deletion systems that the courts or Congress might one day recognize as sufficient to allow for legally-authorized secondary market sales of lawfully acquired digital content.

Indeed, for digital content, virtually ALL solutions other than mere registration and tracking of transactions require BLOCKCHAIN + X, where the X is a related solution that requires additional platforms or tools. For instance, since blockchains are not capable of or at least efficient for the storage or transfer of content files, in most cases companies that are providing solutions that promise to help authors, musicians and other content owners monetize their content, must enlist a separate database for storing copies of the content, in order to match it against other versions. (Not to focus too much on Mediachain today, but here’s a a post that discusses its use of the Interplanetary File System for content storage, as well as the system Mediachain is attempting to develop to resolve competing versions of content files).

I recognize that talking too much about the adjunct systems and products that must be built to enable blockchain-based solutions to function takes away a bit from the “Blockchains Cure Shingles!” sound-bite narratives that sometimes gets too much press (often with the best of intentions). But it’s important to understand, especially for those just learning about the blockchain, that when we say “blockchain technology” we are increasingly discussing a broad array of tools where a blockchain acts as the anchor.


Musings on Distributed Applications for the Arts and Beyond

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