Humanistic Applications of Blockchain Technology?

Yessi Belio Perez writes at Coindesk about “How Blockchain Tech is Inspiring the Art World”. Wow! Something as boring as a distributed data structure is “inspiring” someone? That’s unbelievably cool.  Or just unbelievable.

Actually, most of the interest from artists he cites is in the rather mundane area of record keeping, especially tracking ownership of digital assets. This is indeed a huge problem for all kinds of digital “property”, not only “art”, and blockchain technology may be useful (if not necessarily “inspirational”).

The general idea seems to be variations on the theme of ways to create limited edition, digitally signed, works using blockchain to publically and unforgeably record ownership. These properties of the blockchain are a good match to the commercial concept of “authenticity”: proof that this object came from the hand of the creator, through a chain of legitimate transfers. In addition, the blockchain is universally available, helping defeat transborder and dark market shenanigans.

This “authenticity” is important for the artist, of course, and for buyers: it preserves the scarcity and perceived “value” of the asset, and excludes copies and creative forgeries.   This sort of authenticity has little to do with artistic merit, per se, and everything to do with commerce.

Technologically, the blockchain is being used in quite conventional, uninspired ways. A “work” is given a digital rather than paper certificate, secured by checksums and cryptographic signatures. This certificate is registered on the blockchain (e.g., as part of a microtransaction in Bitcoin). When the work is sold, for Bitcoin or other currency, the transfer is registered on the blockchain as well.

For example, Ascribe implements a registry which securely stores a record of the authentic work along with checksums and cryptographic signatures. They also provide time-stamped cryptographic ownership certificates, which can track the provenance of a work. The registry service is centralized, but the records are published through the distributed blockchain. (Is this a “centralized” or a “decentralized” service? I dunno.)

This kind of service is really no different from conventional practice, except that the blockchain is pretty secure from tampering and is fully public. If there ever was a case where the blockchain really is arguably better than the opaque, self-dealing, corrupt old systems, it is probably here in the snake pit art commerce.

This usage reveals an interesting wrinkle in the concept of blockchain “smart contracts”. These transaction records are public and unforgeable, but are they legally valid, recognized, and enforceable? Is there any reason for me to care if the blockchain says you “own” something?

While some believe that the blockchain is sufficient, and, as Samuel Miller, a London-based artist suggests, “It just kind of can be used for anything, to get rid of lawyers, to bypass copyright law – which is obviously really important for artists. It [the blockchain] will completely empower artists.”  (quoted by Coindesk).

On the other hand, another digital artist Stephan Vogler makes extensive use of blockchain based licenses and Bitcoin transactions to sell his works. In his case, the blockchain certificate signifies agreement to a conventional real-world contract. In fact, the completely ordinary contract includes the completely ordinary clause, “The place of jurisdiction shall be Regensburg. This agreement shall be governed by the law of the Federal Republic of Germany.” This license is not quite so magical or inspired as romantics might wish.

Overall, this technology is probably a good thing for creators, not bad for legitimate consumers, and bad for pirates and leaches. Useful? Sure. Inspirational? Hardly.


Cryptocurrency Thursday


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