A Decentralized Content Registry for the Decentralized Web

Coala IP + IPDB + IPFS: A shared global commons to connect creators with audiences

Bitcoin inspired many of us in various ways. For me, it was an inspiration that you could have a global shared database for the planet, especially for creative works and for self-sovereign personal data.

But while Bitcoin captured the imagination, it was infeasible to take to the mainstream because it simply didn’t scale. How do you import the 30 million songs managed by the labels? How about the 15 billion images indexed from a web crawl?

Also, Bitcoin has nothing to say about IP attribution or licensing. Simply hashing a file is less than 1% of the solution. How do you specify what rights get transferred? What about fractional ownership, or remixes, or IP-within-IP such as a video still? You can try to tack legals onto Bitcoin, but the tech stack gets cumbersome, quickly.

A Vision

What if we were to pause, and ask how an ideal future Web would handle creative works? Many of us dream of a decentralized Web. Well, I believe the decentralized Web needs a decentralized content registry.

That registry…

  • is a shared global database, that no single entity owns or controls (aka decentralized);
  • that anyone can use, anywhere;
  • which directly stores attribution info, scalable to billions of creative works;
  • it helps creators to get paid for their works;
  • it helps audiences find what they want to see, with low friction to payment;
  • it helps connectors to focus on helping audiences discover creative works, rather than on slow, expensive legals; and
  • it directly stores the works themselves too.

This is a big vision. But what’s cool is that it can be converted to engineering and governance specs, and built!

It’s happening.

There’s a movement within the decentralized Web movement to build this, including folks from COALA, IPFS, IPDB, Ethereum, BigchainDB, Blockstack, Synereo, Monax, and more.

The Components

The major pieces that comprise the decentralized content registry are:

  • Licensing: Coala IP is a blockchain-friendly, community driven protocol for attribution and licensing of IP. It reconciles existing formats (e.g. DDEX for music) and has flexibility for complex operations (e.g. fractional ownership; a still within a video). Coala IP was just recently released.
  • Database: IPDB is a global decentralized database to store attribution & licensing info. Specifically, IPDB is a global network with thoughtful governance (IPDB Foundation) that is running scalable decentralized database software (BigchainDB). IPDB just opened a test net for 3rd parties.
  • File system: IPFS & FileCoin together are a global decentralized file system to store the content itself. IPFS is shipping; FileCoin is coming soon.

All of these have open-source licenses, of course. Other technologies can help further. For example, Ethereum could be used for more complex licensing logic, or Mediachain could be used for richer attribution. Blockchain application frameworks such as Blockstack, Monax (nee Eris), or BlockApps could further ease integration.

Analogies

Has this happened before? What might this feel like?

A decentralized content registry is a new public resource, like air or the internet, where the information is “just there” and it “just works”.

In fact, there are even closer analogies:

  • Domain name registry: the Domain Name System (DNS). It’s a public database that helps to power the internet, with just one goal — mapping domain names to IP addresses. It just works (usually!); you don’t have to think about it to use it.
  • Travel registry: Sabre & Amadeus. Together, these are a public registry (alas, privately owned) for travel. If you want to start a new travel site, you get to focus on user experience and new means of discovery. Hence why we’ve seen a flowering of interfaces, from Hipmunk to Trivago to Kayak.

Imagine if we had something similar for content. All the world’s content, in one place; yet shared by the public, as a utility; with pre-set licenses for anyone, anywhere. A new fundamental piece of internet infrastructure, for structured content about IP, along with the IP itself. There are already public corpora scattered about, and private corpora in silos; consider how things might change if it these were all collected into one shared database.

A shared registry will cause a flowering of applications that benefit creators, connectors, and audiences alike. Image: publicdomainpictures.net, Public Domain license

Applications

Fundamentally, a decentralized content registry lowers the friction between connecting creators with their audiences.

A decentralized content registry could lead directly to a flowering of business models. Rather than relying on an advertising or streaming business model, many other ideas could be rapidly explored, to the benefit of all. YouTube pays less than 1/8 ¢ to play a video, even if I get 10 cents or $1 utility from it. In that difference lies opportunity for all — creators, connectors, audiences, entrepreneurs, existing rights holders.

If you’re an IP startup (blockchain or otherwise), this might help you to focus on your core value add: helping audiences discover creative works, potentially in a creative new way; rather than spending time & money on on slow, expensive legals or inadvertently reinventing part of the stack.

If you’re an existing rights holder, this might be for you because it helps you to unlock your existing creative. Maybe some of your creative has been sitting around for decades, only getting licensed periodically in a multi-million dollar licensing deal. The distribution channels are narrow and high friction to get started. For example, 50 years worth of content from your TV station, but only shown in your TV station’s channel. What if instead you could keep your IP safe, while giving opportunities to millions of creative, ambitious entrepreneurs to try out a variety of business models?

If you’re a government agency, this might be for you because it might help your mandate of an IP registry (copyrights, trademarks, or patents) in a fashion that interoperates with other nations’ IP registries that doesn’t require its own special IT infrastructure. Or, in countries where an IP registry is not a mandate, it can nonetheless reduce friction in the creative economies. Finally, it can reduce burden on the legal system because it’s easier to identify when & where attribution and licensing actions took place, with less need to resort to expensive court proceedings.

In this creative new world of slicing-and-dicing, and distribution, the total potential value is hard to understate. Here’s some examples.

  • TV shows and movies content could be repackaged into short clips or stills. Even by the audiences themselves.
  • Or, book content could be sliced-and-diced by the sentence, by the page, or by the chapter.
  • The content could be presented in whole different distribution channels, from novel mobile apps to digital art in galleries.
  • It could be remixed into whole new forms, such as conversion of a plain-text book to an illustrated children’s book, or a 60’s song as part of a modern hip hop medley.

This would all happen without requiring painful legal discussions because the license terms have been pre-specified.

While the financial institutions were largely the first big movers on blockchain technology, IP / media folks are catching up. I’ve seen more movement by big media in the last 6 months than I have in the previous 4 years. And, I’ve seen about 30 IP + blockchain startups. Already, many of them plan to use Coala IP + IPDB + IPFS, and I expect more to use it as awareness of the stack grows.

Interfaces for these applications might be similar to existing centralized content interfaces, from NYT to SoundCloud to YouTube. But there can be interfaces to facilitate registering & licensing (like ascribe.io), or reverse content search for attribution & provenance (like Mediachain Attribution Engine and whereonthe.net). There will be many as-yet undreamed-of applications too.

Interoperability of the Global Registry

While I describe the blocks for the registry as Coala IP + IPDB + IPFS, the protocols actually offer flexibility and independence:

  • The IP protocol itself is interoperable: one can map Coala IP formats to and from domain-specific protocols like DDEX (music) or PLUS (photography).
  • The database is swappable. Coala IP uses IPLD, which means the metadata blobs could live on any network. It also uses ILP, which means that IP assets could be transferred across networks, TCP/IP style. So assets could live not just on IPDB, but also on Synereo (when it matures) or Ethereum (when it scales better).
  • The file system is swappable. IPFS also uses IPLD; they invented it! This helps make it easy for Ethereum Swarm, Storj, Tierion, SwarmJS, dat-data and others to play a role.

COALA IP History

What led to Coala IP? Here’s a quick review, from the start of COALA through to the implementation of the Coala IP spec.

COALA is an international multidisciplinary collaborative research and development initiative that endeavors to bring clarity and reduce legal uncertainty in the field of blockchain technologies, smart contracts and decentralized applications.

At each of its workshops since Oct 2015, COALA has had a working group on Intellectual Property. The goal has been to develop an IP protocol.

Contributors to the IP protocol include (in alphabetical order): Juan Benet (IPFS), Constance Choi (COALA), Matan Field (Backfeed), Primavera de Filippi (COALA, Backfeed), Dor Konforty (Synereo), Trent McConaghy (BigchainDB, IPDB), Greg McMullen (IPDB, BigchainDB), Simon de la Rouviere (ConsenSys / Ujo), Diana Stern (Distributive).

The group built on protocols devised by others, including: LCC (Godfrey Rust, more), JSON-LD (Manu Sporny, more), Interledger (Stefan Thomas, Evan Schwartz, Dimitri de Jonghe), and IPLD (Juan Benet).

The group wrote this academic paper on how blockchains can support, complement, or supplement IP.

Then, the COALA IP spec / whitepaper was written by Tim Daubenschütz, Greg McMullen, and Brett Sun.

Conclusion

We need a global content registry: a decentralized database for IP, as part of the emerging decentralized Web. It’s happening. I’m extremely excited about this as a positive force for creators, connectors, and audiences; and for society at large.