Rebooting Music on the Blockchain: This Time We Have a Chance to Get It Right
By Lance Koonce
The more I spend time talking to people who are working on blockchain projects, or thinking about how this technology may impact different aspects of our lives, the more I realize that there are many very, very bright people out there who firmly believe that we are on the cusp of something that will completely reinvent and reshape whole industries. And I’m personally a convert to this way of thinking.
Of course, revolutions happen infrequently, tipping points come with little warning, and they often occur in a messy if not altogether chaotic fashion.
That’s certainly is, and will be, true of the blockchain revolution.
But as with any tectonic change, opportunities arise to reset and reboot entrenched ways of doing things. To set all new ground rules, to change the fundamental DNA of a system. Benji Rogers believes that one of those opportunities has arisen in music, and that blockchain technology allows for a fresh start for the entire industry.
In November 2015, Rogers authored the article “How the Blockchain and VR Can Change the Music Industry (Part 1),” in which he argued for the creation of a standardized format (.bc) for music files that would allow for encoding of what he called Minimum Viable Data (“MVD”) for each file: the basic info required for identifying each party who composed, performed, and owns the music. He envisioned this information as then forming part of a decentralized worldwide “fair trade” music database, built on blockchain technology, that provided the type of transparency and clarity of rights currently missing from the music industry.
In other words, there was a chance to rebuild the music industry, but to do so from the ground up, with better, fairer, more open practices.
Rogers has been busy since, pressing forward with his idea and enlisting others in this cause, some of whom were approaching this concept already from other angles. This week, he published a follow-up article, “How the Blockchain Can Change the Music Industry (Part 2),” which updates the status of this work, including providing more technical detail around the file standard and MVD.
In the article, Rogers attempts to distinguish the concept of embedding key rights information in a content file under this “fair trade” scheme, from Digital Rights Management (“DRM”) — see our prior post on rights management for additional information. He says:
I am therefore calling this Digital Rights Expression, as none of what is proposed here is designed to limit possibilities.
This change in nomenclature may help dissuade knee-jerk reactions against blockchain-enabled encoding and tracing of ownership/usage rights, but the truth is that the major concerns over DRM haven’t really been about what information is being encoded into a file’s metadata — they’ve been about the technical implementations that seek to use a file’s metadata as a trigger for restricting access to the content itself. It’s really about the technology being used to play the content. Still, more transparency in terms of the metadata contained in each file may well assist in limiting the most overreaching restrictions.
Rogers also discusses another problem we’ve raised in prior posts: The issue of how to verify the accuracy of information about content when it is first placed onto a blockchain-based system. Rogers says:
Another concern has been voiced around the uploading of incorrect and or incomplete data especially as it pertains to publishing ownership. I am proposing that at the time of upload proof of ownership be required by at least one of the publishers or owners representing a work. This would in essence anchor the .bc into its place in the blockchain and should a dispute around ownership arise, then the blockchain database and the MVD contact information would allow any future conflicts to be sought out and resolved.
What might that proof of ownership consist of? More importantly, who would serve as the gatekeeper for vetting that proof? That remains to be seen, but I imagine it would require more than a simple rep and warranty of ownership. One can certainly imagine the development of standardized materials — for instance, perhaps music production contracts in the future could require the recordation (maybe also on a blockchain) of certain production milestones with check-offs by participants along the way, culminating in an agreed-upon recitation of rights that each participant signs off on electronically? Regardless, if solutions like this are developed, they not only stand to create better standards for the blockchain-based rights system itself, but possibly to impose more regularized contract-making on the industry.
Of course, there’s still the problem of older works where the rights situation is already a mess. The blockchain can’t solve that problem, although it can make later transactions easier to unwind if supposed rights information later proves false. Also, if more transparency and a clear standard for new content exists, eventually most content created before the advent of the blockchain will likely be retroactively worked into the new scheme, so maybe it will even help smooth out some of the existing tangles.
I’ll leave Benji Rogers with the last word on this point:
Digital Rights Expression begins with a song. A song that is encoded into a format that we all own. A format that contains the rights within it as expressed by its creators and owners. And this process drops, one by one, all of the music that we make into a global and decentralized home for all of our musical and artistic wealth. A home that serves all players in the game — not just the largest but also the smallest, and it all begins with the first song to hit this system.