Fish or Phish? Fair Trade Haddock and Fair Trade Music Will Both Exist on the Blockchain

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Photo Credit: marfis75 on flickr
By Lance Koonce

The power of the blockchain to reduce inefficiencies and to carry key information along with related assets is likely to both disrupt and empower (different) participants in many existing chains of transactions that run from suppliers to consumers.

Provenance is a start-up based in the UK that aims to use blockchain and other technologies to enable companies selling anything from fashion to ceramics to food — any product with a supply chain — to provide trusted information about the products to consumers. Here’s how they describe it:

Opaque supply chains are devastating environments and compromising the wellbeing of people, animals and communities.… Provenance is a real-time data platform that empowers brands to take steps toward greater transparency by tracing the origins and histories of products. With our technology you can easily gather and verify stories, keep them connected to physical things and embed them anywhere online.

Provenance’s website includes several examples of companies signed on to use its system to provide this information, Jonathan Norris Fishmongers in London, which sources natural oak smoked haddock from Cornwall. According to a recent article, a company like Jonathan Norris might use the system to provide consumers with information about sustainability, to map the supply chain, and invite collaborators to contribute content:

So, if a consumer wants to contest, say, a fair-trade assertion from a brand, well, they can, on the blockchain. Likewise, if a brand wants to prove beyond doubt that something they’re doing is totally sustainable, they can, on the blockchain.

So what does this have to do with jam bands like Phish?

In a recent post, Bryce Weiner discusses a completely different supply chain, the one that runs from musicians through music labels and on down the line to consumers. He points out one important role music labels play for artists: addressing legal risk by fighting content piracy and, on the flip side (pun intended) defending against infringement claims. (Weiner’s an interesting — and to some controversial — person in the blockchain world, and is one of the few who openly embraces the term “digital rights management” when discussing blockchain for music).

Weiner notes the old model of “open source” music which aimed to fight piracy by freely allowing copying of performances was exemplified by the Grateful Dead, which

employed a licensing regime that has been summed up as “once we play it, its yours.” This contributed to the popularity of the band as fans would record individual performances and sell them.

However, he suggests that this model doesn’t work well in the modern market (at least to drive broad public success), citing bands like Phish, because freely available music renders acts “unsuitable for radio or broadcast airplay due to licensing concerns.”

His answer? Yep: the blockchain. He suggests that all parties in the music industry supply chain may benefit from a “responsible application of blockchain technology,” including “[t]he application of smart contracts and modern cryptographic techniques” to allow artists to “enjoy the legal protections currently enjoyed by major acts, while at the same time creating an accounting regime that is suitable for signed artists.”

This is a hopeful vision, but ensuring that all views are considered? Therein of course lies the rub. As we’ve discussed before, since we appear to be at or near an inflection point with this new technology, it’s possible that a balanced system will be developed, and to some extent blockchain technology — given the built-in transparency — should drive development towards a more open, fair system. But there’s a long way to go to ensuring that happens, and as with any enterprise with competing concerns among participants, a lot will depend on who has the leverage to impose their will.

I also think we will need to think very carefully about this idea that blockchain technology will itself readily provide a mechanism for securing legal protections for (especially independent) artists. Smart contracts may be helpful in some respects, but for now and the foreseeable future they will exist within existing legal frameworks. Disputes — although hopefully there may be fewer of them — will still arise, and the parties to disputes will still bear the cost of fighting them (whichever side they are on).

But perhaps in the distributed world of the blockchain, there will be some novel ways to address legal — a distributed artists defense fund, for example.

In any event, it’s helpful to think of the content industries as supply chains, and to consider how platforms based on the blockchain may assist not just the delivery and management of content, but also provide key information about the chain itself.

If “fair trade” music is a goal, we may have something to learn from fish.

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