The truth about blockchain is that at its core, it requires its regime to be enforced on rights owners in order to scale–and that is its essential flaw.
Call me a blockchain skeptic. I agree with many of the conclusions reached by Alan Graham in his MusicTechPolicy interview, but I also think that at its core, blockchain as currently contemplated fails as an industry-wide rights registry. Since I understand that its essential purpose is to be a reliable rights registry, it seems obvious to me that blockchain has limited application at best.
I spent a good deal of time helping some very smart people build an independent rights registry around 2005 and have thought about these issues for a long time. (All the major labels and many indies participated in that registry.)
Based on that experience, I believe that the core value proposition of a rights registry is that it be easy to use; that the information in it be objectively verified and only changed with a proper showing of authority; that it be capable of making or directing the making of royalty payments (which means holding necessary tax information); and that it can be easily and timely updated with information for new releases. I believe all these elements are essential and that blockchain accomplishes none of them well and some of them not at all.
A quote from Benji Rogers in MusicAlly lays out the core problem very effectively. (Benji Rogers is a promoter of the blockchain technology and his own company Dot Blockchain–I think I have all the capitalizations in the right place, but forgive me if it’s actually dOt bLK.ch..n or something like that.) Here’s his quotation (which I doubt that he viewed as a criticism of his product):
“Blockchains force action… If I were to make a statement about a work that I own in a blockchain, and I were to send it to you…you have three choices: yes it’s correct and I agree, no it’s not correct, or ignore it, which means it’s correct.”
“What blockchain may bring to the table is something you cannot ignore, because ignoring it is the same as accepting what’s there in the table is truth… A blockchain-based system at scale could force people to work with it, in a way that exposes them to decentralisation and transparency, arguably whether they like it or not.” (emphasis in original)
In other words, organizing the world’s information whether the world likes it or not. Sound familiar?
It is one thing if blockchain is a voluntary regime that artists and users can decide to participate in–and submit themselves to forced “decentralization and transparency” as Mr. Rogers articulates so well. But it is entirely another thing altogether if blockchain is enforced by law.
I would not rule out that it is ultimately the goal of the blockchain investors to force songwriters and artists to submit to the blockchain as a matter of law. This is certainly a familiar refrain if you have followed the various meltdowns over the desire of online retailers and search companies to force songwriters and artists to submit to their exploitation. We have heard these ideas frequently over the years whether it is even safer harbors, orphan works or massive numbers of unauditable address unknown NOIs under the US compulsory mechanical license.
If you doubt that could happen, realize that two unmovable government agencies are currently allowing millions of songs to be exploited with unverified and dubious authority–the U.S. Copyright Office with mass NOIs and the Department of Justice with 100% licensing. What’s to stop them taking the next step?
One person’s forced “decentralization and transparency” is another’s eminent domain. So when you hear about blockchain, imagine if the blockchain bubble had the awesome power of the sovereign forcing someone else’s interpretation of truth on creators.
Especially when the time it takes to correct someone else’s interpretation of the truth as Mr. Rogers suggests their job would become will be even more uncompensated time for another free ride that will probably end the same way that DMCA notices do for the vast majority of independent artists.