Imagine a world where you could easily register and claim ownership over your original creative works – from music to photos to blogs. Gone would be the days of seeing your work duplicated all over the internet without proper credit and having no way to prove ownership. With the use of blockchain technology, that world is not so far away. Distributed ledger technology promises to transform the way intellectual property rights are established and enforced – and the way IP creators are compensated.
Before joining Steptoe, I oversaw the Justice Department’s IP criminal enforcement program. In that role, I worked closely with others in law enforcement and with the content industry – from film and television to publishing to music – in an effort to try to stop piracy and to ensure that artists and creators of all types of IP were protected. At that time, the world was just beginning to hear about Bitcoin but had yet to discover the many other applications for blockchain technology that go far beyond digital currencies.
Today, however, as “blockchain” is on its way to becoming a household word, we’re poised for a revolution in the protection of all types of IP. That’s because the blockchain can be used to control and track the distribution of protected IP. By putting IP on the blockchain, creators would have an immutable, secure, time-stamped record of the creation and distribution of their works. In addition, it can be used to establish and enforce licenses for IP through smart contracts and even to transmit payments in real-time to IP owners.
This is not just theoretical. On the contrary, it’s becoming reality. And the music industry is leading the charge. For instance, Imogen Heap is among the artists pioneering the distribution of, and the receipt of digital payments for, her music through a blockchain platform. This type of system allows artists to have control over access to their works and to ensure faster, direct payments to the artists themselves – and could impact the role of iTunes or other intermediaries between artist and consumer.
This same type of model can be used for other types of IP as well – from artistic creations to scientific discoveries. For instance, companies are using the blockchain to allow artists, photographers, authors, and designers to register and exercise ownership and control over their creations. And one company has developed a system for marijuana growers to protect their proprietary strains of marijuana by placing the genome of each strain on a blockchain – marking the first time a cryptographic hash has been used to protect actual hash. Recognizing the implications across numerous industries, the US Department of Commerce is hosting a public meeting this Friday on creating an interoperable, digital market place for copyrighted works.
Given the transformative potential of this technology, it’s not surprising that the blockchain implicates a host of IP-related laws and legal constructs. From licensing, to distribution, to the doctrine of first sale, to the DMCA, the blockchain will influence the development of IP law as dramatically as the Internet did. The impact of blockchain on creators and consumers will be profound, so much so that someone should write a song about it – and then release that song on the blockchain.