How The Creative Industries Are Using Blockchain

This was Blockchain Week in New York, formally known as Consensus 2018, an orgy of  blockchain-focused conferences, hackathons, meetups, hookups, seances and parties organized by CoinDesk that actually ran to 10 days. Yours truly was asked to moderate a panel at one such conference, the Blockchain Brand Innovation Summit put on by the CDX Academy and Columbia University Business School, and to offer a few words on how folks in the creative industries are using, or thinking of using blockchain.

I am no kind of expert on blockchain or the various technologies or mathematical concepts associated with it (crypto, consensus mechanisms, smart contracts, etc.). But in my capacity as co-founder of the RightsTech Project I’ve observed how many different sectors of the creative industries are looking to blockchain as a solution — or part of a solution — to a common set of challenges. So, in preparing for the panel, I pulled together a few “thoughts” on the question and came up with five broad use cases, or categories of use cases, for which people in the creative industries seem to be looking to blockchain.

I didn’t attempt to reach any sort of grand synthesis or conclusion regarding those categories. But a few people have since approached me anyway asking if I would share more details on my (very rough) taxonomy, so, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d try to elaborate a little on my comments here.

So: Five categories of use-cases for blockchain in the creative industries:

Direct-to-fan/audience engagement
Many artists, particularly but not exclusively music artists, view blockchain as a vehicle for engaging directly with their audience, without the intercession — or permission — of the usual institutional gatekeepers. That can take the form of issuing blockchain-based cryptographic tokens to crowd-fund creative projects; direct-to-fan distribution of creative works via smart contract; issuing artist-branded tokens to monetize the “brand equity” of artists and their fan bases; or even giving fans direct input into creative decisions via token-based voting. Examples include:

  • Imogen Heap, who released her single “Tiny Human” on the Ethereum blockchain via Ujo Music last year as a proof-of-concept for direct-to-fan distribution.
  • DECENT, the well-funded Switzerland-based startup building what it calls a fully decentralized content distribution and financing platform.
  • Tatiana Moroz, a singer/songwriter who issued the first artist-branded crypto-coin in 2016 to help fund here 2017 album release “Keep the Faith.”
  • AltMarket, a Silicon Valley-based startup building a crypto trading platform to help artists issue their own branded token.

Some direct-to-fan projects may face more difficulty getting off the ground in the future as regulators take a harder look at the use of crypto-tokens to raise capital and questions begin to arise around the copyright implications of blockchain-based distribution.

Registration of authorship and ownership
An especially popular application within the image and fine arts industries, the sequential, time-stamped method for adding data to a blockchain makes it possible for an artist to create an immutable, cryptographically signed Ur-record of a works creation and authorship, as well as an unbroken, sequential record of all subsequent transactions involving that work. The method for encrypting data on a blockchain also makes it possible to bind metadata on authorship and ownership permanently and immutably to the work the digital file containing the work itself so that it cannot be stripped out later. Examples include:

  • Verisart, a blockchain-based application for generating a cryptographically secure certificate of authenticity for artworks and collectibles.
  • Binded, a blockchain-based automated rights registry for photographs and other types of images
  • Po.et, a registry and automated licensing platform for writers and publishers
  • Codex Protocol, a U.S. and U.K.-based startup building a blockchain-based platform and application development environment registering, auctioning, buying and selling artworks and collectibles
  • KodakOne, a new blockchain-based registration platform developed by Wenn Digital for photographs and other images.

Data management and reconciliation
At its core, blockchain, a blockchain is simply a ledger of transactions, albeit one that is network-based and shared by all participants in the network. The particular genius of blockchain technology is that it can incorporate mathematical mechanism for creating consensus and uniformity in the ledger throughout the network without the need of a trusted central authority to certify its accuracy and currency.

Those qualities have led many in copyright-based industries, particularly the music industry, to took to blockchain as a means data that is vital to the licensing and exploitation of works, but is often hoarded inside proprietary databases, accessible to all. Examples include:

  • JAAK, a startup working with several major music publishers to create a comprehensive, decentralized global database of music rights information built on blockchain.
  • The Open Music Initiative spearheaded by Berklee College of Music and involving more than 200 music industry partners, that is attempting to define an open ecosystem for the sharing and transfer of music metadata and rights information, which incorporates blockchain-based applications.
  • Dubset, a blockchain-based service for clearing and paying for rights to recordings and compositions included in music DJ sets and remixes.
  • Image Protect, an ambitious effort to create an open, decentralized global database of image rights.

Transparency in royalty collections and payments
Similar to efforts to create open, decentralized databases, some in the creative industries see in blockchain a means to bring greater transparency to tracking and payment of royalties and residuals. Any given view, listen, sale, or other paid use of a copyrighted work can trigger a long string of contractual payment obligations to the people involved in the creation of the work. That money typically passes through multiple hands, however, and it is often very difficult for artists to track what they’re owed, by whom, for what. Often enough, money owed never quite makes it all the way through to the artist.

In principle, blockchain-based smart contracts could automate the process of tallying and dispersing the money owed to those with claims on it while providing an open, auditable trail. Examples include:

  • SingularDTV, a blockchain-based crowd-funding platform for filmmakers that envisions using smart contracts to enable automatic and instantaneous payments to creative participants
  • MovieCoin, a blockchain-based film financing platform that touts its ability to provide financiers and investors with a transparent ledger of all expenditures, receipts, entitlements and ownership of all works financed through the platform.
  • Ujo Music, the Ethereum-based platform used by Imogen Heap to release “Tiny Human” to enable tracking and payment of royalties via smart contract.

Digital scarcity
This is a tricky one. There are many within the major media companies (Hollywood studios, major record labels, book publishers), who see in blockchain an opportunity to reintroduce conditional access (i.e. DRM) to industries that have been plagued by piracy. In theory, self-enforcing usage rules incorporated into the smart contracts used to represent copyrighted works on a blockchain could prevent or limit many unauthorized uses or redistribution of those works. Decentralized registration of usage rights could also, again in theory, benefit consumers by providing a simplified, non-intrusive alternative to an online, restricted-access rights locker. Whether that would be enough to induce consumers to embrace such a system is an open question.

Other types of digital scarcity are already being embraced, however. One of the hottest online games at the moment is CryptoKitties, which uses non-fungible crypto-tokens to represent unique, discrete virtual cats that can be bought, sold, collected and bred to create new cats using smart contracts. Blockchain also enables artists to issue “limited editions” of digital works, providing collectors with assurance that the value of their purchases would be diluted. Other examples include:

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. There are no doubt many other possible uses for blockchain within the creative industries.

Nor is it meant to be definitive. Many blockchain projects incorporate elements of some or all of the general features I’ve outlined. But I hope it captures, at least in broad strokes, some of the main ways people in the creative industries are thinking about the potential of blockchain.

Modernizing Music Licensing

Just before Christmas, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers introduced the Music Modernization Act, which, among other things, would create a new blanket license for mechanical reproduction rights to musical compositions and establish a new entity to collect and distribute mechanical royalties.

The bill is meant to address one of the abiding sources of friction within the digital music streaming business. Musical compositions in the U.S. are subject to a compulsory mechanical license, meaning anyone can record a song and sell copies of that recording by sending a notice of intent (NOI) to the composition’s copyright owners and paying a per-copy royalty set by the Copyright Royalty Board.

Unlike the public performance right, however, where performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC aggregate millions of compositions and offer a blanket license covering their entire repertoires, anyone availing themselves of the compulsory mechanical license is required to identify and pay the appropriate copyright owners individually. Where the copyright owners cannot be identified or located, the user can file the NOI with the U.S. Copyright Office and the royalties paid are held in escrow until the rights owners are located.

The system worked well enough for many years when it was rare for anyone or any outlet to make bulk use of the mechanical reproduction right. With the rise of digital streaming, however, which has been held to implicate both the public performance and the mechanical reproduction right, the lack of an efficient system for administering mechanical rights has been a constant source of tension, between digital service providers like Spoity and Apple Music on the one hand, and music publishers and songwriters on the other.

That tension has frequently erupted into litigation, including the $1.6 billion lawsuit filed against Spotify in December by Wixen Music Publishing over Spotify’s alleged failure to pay required mechanical royalties.

Should it become law, the Music Modernization Act could go a long way toward easing those tensions. Since it’s introduction, in fact, the bill has gained broad support throughout the industry. In a rare show of unity, a group of more than 20 industry organizations representing music publishers, songwriters, record labels, PROs, and service providers issued a joint statement earlier this month endorsing the bill and urging its passage.

Much of the credit for the bill’s introduction and for rallying support behind it belongs to the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and its CEO David Israelite, who worked closely with the bill’s sponsors on Capitol Hill and helped broker the joint statement. Israelite will sit down with me for a special fireside chat at Digital Entertainment World on February 5th to discuss the Music Monetization Act, as well as other issues facing the industry, including the music industry’s notorious data challenges, and the future of performance rights licensing in the wake of recent court cases.

This week, we asked Israelite a few preliminary questions to set the stage for his fireside chat:

Concurrent Media: Last week, a group of music industry organizations jointly endorsed the Music Modernization Act, the Classics Act and the AMP Act. To what do you attribute the sudden outbreak of cooperation among so many different stakeholders?

David Israelite: We have a window of momentum and consensus that is ripe for action. Congressional leaders like Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who retires this year, has made copyright reform a priority, and with songwriter champions like Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) offering consensus bills like the MMA – and the Senate hopefully following suit – there is a real opportunity to move legislation that will significantly help the future of songwriting. Additionally, the MMA is not a wish list for music publishers and songwriters – it is a bill that took months to negotiate because it helps both the tech and music industries. No one got everything they wanted – but both sides are better off with the MMA. DiMA, which represents the biggest tech companies in the world is supportive, as are the biggest songwriter groups in the U.S.

Largely because of the momentum around the MMA – the music industry has coalesced around other music bills that will help legacy artists and producers. As I have always said – we are stronger together – and we have a great opportunity to not just help our segment of the pie – but to advance the whole creative class. After years of trying to develop and unite around reasonable reforms, it is truly exciting that today we stand together and that Congress is invested in these changes as well.

Where do you think the debate over the BMI/ASCAP consent decrees goes now in the wake of the 2nd Circuit decision?

BMI’s win sends a strong message that the DOJ cannot simply reinterpret decades of industry practice and upend the lives of thousands of songwriters. The new leadership in DOJ’s antitrust division hopefully offers a new path forward, and I believe they are looking at the consent decrees with fresh eyes. My hope is that they will ultimately abolish them altogether and give songwriters the free market that other intellectual property owners enjoy.

3) What is NMPA’s position on the various PRO database initiatives (ASCAP/BMI; ASCAP/SACEM/PRS)?

The PROs currently offer searchable repertoires. Their efforts to create a single database will bring clarity to the industry – however these initiative will take time and money. I look forward to seeing their progress in the coming months.

Click here for information on how to register for Digital Entertainment World.

Explaining Blockchain With Cats

When Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin into the world, whoever he, she, or they were set the total number of coins that can ever be released (“mined” in Bitcoin parlance) at 21 million. While individual bitcoins can be sub-divided into an infinite number of smaller units (fractions of bitcoins), the total whole number of units is finite.

CryptoKitties fat cat Mack Flavelle

That inherent scarcity is one of the reasons for the dizzying run-up in the price of bitcoins: At any given time there is a fixed number of bitcoins in the world.

The key to establishing that scarcity is the blockchain, which leverages cryptography to ensure that individual bitcoins (and their subdivisions) are unique, identifiable, unalterable, and un-reproducible. Unlike the internet, where sending a digital file from one computer to another inescapably involves creating a new copy, bitcoins themselves are not really “sent” or transferred over a network so there is no need to create a copy. Instead, the shared ledger that records ownership of bitcoins is updated to reflect the new network address (i.e. owner) of a cryptographically unique asset on the network.

Those properties, of uniqueness and scarcity, are part of what has attracted many artists to blockchain technology. What is unique and scarce can have and hold value, and what has value can be bought and sold, traded and collected, or held as an asset in the expectation of appreciation.

Getting people who are not steeped in cryptography and are accustomed to the infinite reproducibility of digital files on the internet to become familiar and comfortable with the concepts of digital scarcity and uniqueness, however, is a challenge. Without that buy-in from consumers, the blockchain hopes of many in the media and creative industries could be broken.

It was that challenge that Mack Flavelle and his team of developers at AxiomZen set out to tackle. Their solution? Cats.

The team came up with a collection of digital illustrations depicting goggle-eyed, cartoon cats they called CryptoKitties and created an online game allowing people to buy, sell and collect CryptoKitties using Ether. The game also leverages smart contracts to make the kitties “breedable,” based on their unique “DNA,” creating new, unique CryptoKitties.

Why cats? While there are other blockchain-based digital collectibles on the market, most are targeted at limited audiences, such as RarePepes, based on the adopted alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog. Flavelle’s goal was to appeal to a broader market and introduce ordinary consumers to digital collectibels. “Cats are part of the internet,” Flavelle tells RightsTech.  “People are already familiar with the idea of trading cat videos.”

Trading in CryptoKitties has been robust. At one point, it became the dominant application on the Ethereum network, to the annoyance of others trying to use the network.

According to a third-party site that tracks sales of CryptoKitties, some virtual kittens have sold for the equivalent of more than $100,000, based on the then-current value of Ether.

Flavelle, who’s title is Fat Cat, will sit down for one-on-one fireside chat with me on February 6th, as part of the RightsTech track at the Digital Entertainment World conference in Los Angeles.

We’ll discuss the origins of CryptoKitties, what their creators have learned about the market for digital collectibles, what their popularity portends for consumer adoption of blockchain-based applications, and whether CryptoKitties are a fad or will prove to have nine lives.

Click here for information on registering for Digital Entertainment World.

 

Nothing Neutral About Disney’s Bid For Fox

It was fitting, albeit likely coincidental, that the Walt Disney Co. announced its $52 billion acquisition of most of the movie and TV assets of 21st Century Fox on the day the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal its own net neutrality rules, because the deal is very much about the future of content delivery over the internet.

Disney CEO Robert Iger

Under the deal, Disney would absorb the 20th Century-Fox film and TV studio and its library, including the first three “Star Wars” films; most of Fox’s cable networks group, including National Geographic, FX, and 300-plus international channels but excluding Fox News or Fox Sports; and 22 regional sports networks (RSNs). The deal also includes Fox’s one-third interest in Hulu, giving Disney majority control over the streaming service.

Assuming the deal passes antitrust muster — highly likely given Rupert Murdoch’s closeness to Donald Trump — it will give Disney control over vast new libraries of content as it prepares to significantly expand its direct-to-consumer streaming business. Strategic control over Hulu will also give Disney a solid foundation from which to challenge Netflix and Amazon directly as an over-the-top content aggregator.

Yet, while the coming showdown with Netflix has grabbed most of the headlines about the deal, there is another important streaming dynamic likely to play out that has gotten less attention but which could be directly impacted by the repeal of the net neutrality rules.

Whether, or not, the bulked up Disney succeeds in challenging Netflix and Amazon, its growing direct-to-consumer ambitions give the Mouse a major stake in the coming contest between programming services and broadband providers over the terms and conditions of engagement on last-mile networks.

The over-the-top streaming business has so far developed very differently from traditional movie and television delivery businesses. In the traditional TV business, the owners of the last-mile pipes — cable and satellite operators, local broadcast affiliates — pay program providers for access to their content.

Disney, in particular, has been successful in leveraging that dynamic, earning ESPN the highest per-subscriber carriage fees of any cable network.

Unlike a cable TV system, however, internet access networks have utility and value independent of any particular content, allowing access service providers to build their networks — and subscriber bases — without having to pay for the content moving across those networks.

If anything, the monopoly or duopoly status most internet access providers enjoy within their footprints has raised concerns that ISPs could use the leverage of their control over their networks to compel content providers to pay for access to their subscribers.

The FCC’s original Open Internet Order was designed in part specifically to deny ISPs that leverage, by prohibiting the blocking or throttling of data based on its source, or accepting compensation for favorable treatment of data from a particular source. Those rules left the status quo in place, at least for the time being. But they left open the possibility that the streaming business could eventually develop more like the traditional TV business, in which access providers are compelled to

The FCC has now voted to lift those rules — their ultimate fate awaits the outcome of inevitable litigation — potentially upsetting the current balance of power.

Determining who will ultimately holds the leverage in that balance remains a work in progress, however. One way to read Disney’s bid for Fox is as an attempt to position itself not only against Netflix but against last-mile network operators for the inevitable battles ahead.

From that perspective, the real trigger event for Disney was AT&T’s (still pending) acquisition of Time Warner. Assuming that deal goes through, it will mean that two of Disney’s (and Fox’s) major competitors — NBCUniversal, now owned by Comcast, and Time Warner — will be owned by major broadband providers. That could leave Disney at a disadvantage in the struggle for leverage over the terms of OTT distribution.

One option would have been for Disney to sell itself to a network operator. But the only one out there with the scale to do it and not already betrothed is Verizon, and Verizon execs have made it clear they’re not in the market for a major studio.

By buying Fox, Disney is hoping to gain enough scale as a content provider to treat with network operators on equal or better terms.

 

Skinny Bundles vs. Set-Top A La Carte

Having resigned themselves to a future defined by cord-cutting, TV programmers are desperately trying to hold the line on bundling. The virtual-MVPD movement started by Dish Network’s Sling TV service began by trying to split the difference between the bloated traditional pay-TV bundle and true a la carte by offering a slimmed down package of channels at a lower price.

Since then, as more vMVPDs have launched to challenge Sling programmers have used their leverage to push up both the heft of the bundles and price tag, to where “skinny” bundles increasingly resemble what they aimed to replace, albeit at a somewhat reduced price.

That strategy isn’t cutting it with many cord-cutters, however. According to MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, virtual-MVPD subscriptions are so far making up only about 60 percent of the losses from consumers cutting the traditional cord, a trend Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar sees continuing. Over the next decade, Venkateshwar projects, 31 million traditional pay-TV subscribers will cut the cord, but only 17 million will sign up for an internet-delivered bundle.

Assuming internet-delivered bundles are still around in a decade, that is. “Most of these [vMVPD] businesses are at best break-even or money losers,” Moffett told Bloomberg. “This is shaping up to be a truly lousy business.”

The a la carte on-demand subscription business, on the other hand, is shaping up nicely. Set-top streaming box maker Roku this month reported 15 million active monthly accounts, a 43 percent year-over-year increase and more than all virtual-MVPDs combined. The privately held company generated nearly $400 million in revenue in 2016 and reportedly is preparing to file for an initial public offering later this year at a roughly $1 billion valuation.

Notably roughly $100 of that $400 million in revenue last year came not from hardware sales but from its media and licensing business, which includes ad sales on Roku channels and fees it charges networks to be featured on the platform.

Roku isn’t alone on the set-top, either. According to eMarketer, Roku 38.9 million Americans will use Roku at least once a month in 2017 (including multiple users per active account), up 19 percent over last year, followed closely by Google’s Chromecast, at 36.9 million, and Amazon’s Fire TV, at 35.8 million.

One reason for that growth in connected-device usage is the growth in the number of U.S. households subscribing to more than one over-the-top subscription VOD service.

According to a recent study by Hub Entertainment Research 38 percent of U.S. TV households now subscribe to two or more SVOD services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. That’s up from 26 percent last year. Some 14 percent of households subscribe to all three major services, up from 6 percent a year ago.

Not all of those SVOD subscribers have cut the cord, of course, but anyone who is subscribing to all three major services is paying about as much per month for them as they would for a skinny bundle. If consumers can be said to vote with their dollars they’re voting for a future that is on-demand and a la carte, not just over-the-top.