From ENIAC to the Blockchain: Digital Art and Authentication (“Let’s Get Digital” by David Honig)

Lance Koonce
Mar 8, 2016 · 2 min read
Classic_shot_of_the_ENIAC
Classic_shot_of_the_ENIAC

By Lance Koonce

Here’s a very thoughtful article we should have mentioned previously, but somehow missed.

On the Center for Art Law blog, David Honig writes about the history of digital art, and in particular the problems of authentication. He discusses prior solutions including digital watermarks, and then turns to the solution being offered by companies such as Verisart, the blockchain.

There’s plenty to like in Honig’s article, but I found this insight particularly compelling:

Unlike in film and music, the producer and consumer in digital art are much more likely to be aligned in their desire to prevent the ability to reproduce the work. In the sphere of entertainment, the producer does not want film or music to be easily reproduced because unauthorized copies usually negatively impact the market for the good, but the consumer usually wants the ability to make copies so as to enjoy the song or movie on multiple devices without having to purchase a new copy. It is unclear whether when it comes to digital art, the consumer would wish to have multiples for different devices.

This is a good reminder that when it comes to using blockchain solutions for the arts, not all works and all users are situated equally. In prior posts, we’ve discussed the issue of digital copies and the first sale doctrine mostly in the context of other types of content such as music and video. In those contexts, the issue of digital rights management has been something of a divisive issues as between content providers and users, for exactly the reasons Honig mentions.

This is likely because, for better or worse, consumers of digital entertainment are primarily interested in listening to or watching the content — that is, consuming it, rather than collecting such content as items of value. But Honig is correct that digital art collectors DO treat their purchases as “things” having value, and hopefully increasing value over time.

There’s a reason we call them collectors rather than consumers, after all.

Remember when we used to have “record collectors,” who amassed vast collections of physical albums? There are no mp3 collectors. (Although, in future posts we’ll delve into this and into the first sale doctrine some more, using the kerfuffle a few years ago over whether Bruce Willis could leave his iTunes collection to his children as an inheritance as one leaping off point for discussion.)

What this means for blockchain-based systems remains unclear, but it may well mean that fine art solutions will lead the way in creating true digital tokens that represent a single, unique copy of a work.

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Musings on Distributed Applications for the Arts and Beyond

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