One of the biggest, still-dormant use cases for blockchain technology is in the field of media – the overarching term capturing a slew of creative professions whose traditional business models have been upended by lightning-fast digital file replication.
Across various fields, the problems are clear: writers, photographers and musicians lack the ability to prove and protect ownership of their works and ideas, a prospect that renders monetization in a digital environment difficult.
One of the more unique projects innovating in this area is Mediachain, a newly launched metadata protocol that allows digital creators to attach information to their creative works, timestamp that data to the bitcoin blockchain and store it with the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a distributed file system incorporating aspects of blockchain technology.
To Jesse Walden and Denis Nazarov, co-founders of Mine, the startup behind the Mediachain project, entrepreneurial innovators approaching the space have too often tried to undo how the Internet has changed media business models, rather than help those affected work more effectively within the parameters of this new reality.
As an example of its thesis, Mediachain is beginning its work by focusing on image data and attribution, using machine learning and blockchain tech to offer a service whereby users can not only attach identifying information to files, but reverse query files to search for creators.
At launch, the focus of the project will be on pictorial works, as Nazarov told CoinDesk:
"With drag and drop and copy and paste, images are the easiest media type to share on the Internet. Images travel virally, but it’s hard for the creators and content owners to benefit. We really see Mediachain as a global rights database for images."
When used in conjunction with a service like Instagram, Nazarov and Walden envision a future where users who wanted to repost an image would be able to pull up historic information on the file using Mediachain.
In this light, they see the effort as a way to help preserve identity, even if enforcing the rights and monetizing such content may be, in their own words, "an impossible problem".
On a sufficiantly long timeline, such a reliable metadata database could enable the creation of new platforms, Walden and Nazarov contend, such as a next-generation Spotify or Netflix, which would be able to easily access identifying information for creative works.
"The goal of Mediachain is to unbundle identity and distribution. We’re the identity layer on which distribution platforms can be built," Walden said.
Lessons from the past
Walden and Nazarov have also identified what they believe to be a viable point of attack in order for the Mediachain platform to gain wider use – public institutions that offer open data sets for images used in galleries, libraries and archives.
“Part of their public mandate is to have openly licensed metadata about their works. The Metropolitan Museum of Art might have its own metadata platform, it might have an API and there’s lots of interesting projects being built on top of them,” Nazarov said.
In particular, he cited efforts by the New York Public Library to make maps with its historical images available to the public. The co-founders said that by focusing on this group, they could help bootstrap the effort as they seek to encourage the platform’s wider use in consumer-facing projects.
In initial blog posts, Mine has provided details as to its choice of architecture for the platform, and why it believes IPFS was the best option for the database when compared to alternatives such as the bitcoin blockchain or even a newly created blockchain.
Mine has cited IPFS’ ability to store "richly structured data" in what they contend is a more readable format than alternatives. This was of interest, Walden said, because Mediachain features only descriptions of media, not the actual files themselves.
Still, Walden argued that the decentralized nature of Mediachain is crucial to its efforts given the past failures of the Global Repertoire Database (GRD), one of the more high-profile, high-investment attempts to create a database of musical rights and works.
Launched in 2008, the effort saw stakeholders from across the tech and recording industries come together to invest €23m-€32m in a digital rights management system, only to have the GRD fall apart amid missed deadlines and fights over funding.
Walden said that the lesson from the effort is that a centralized solution is not best equipped to handle the storage of digital rights, adding:
"The goal of that project is similar to our goal, but our belief is that a GRD will need to be decentralized."
Given its design, however, Mediachain has had to adapt to future challenges even before its launch, for example, how it might deal with bad actors who want to claim ownership to the works of others.
Here again Walden and Nazarov cited their strategy of engaging public institutions as an example of how the platform will seek to acquire the trust of its users.
The Mine team said they have been working on a platform that would allow Mediachain users to annotate images, but use a reputation system so that others can begin to trust the information on its platform.
“I could claim I made the Mona Lisa, so the way we think about it is, this federated approach lets you trust people to vouch for a metadata’s correctness. That is where we see the value will be,” Nazarov said.
They also suggested they believe the Mediachain community would gain or lose trust over time depending on how it maintains its open-access resource.
Here, Nazarov cited the success of past Internet community efforts and their ability to achieve reputation as evidence that the approach could prove successful.
"On Wikipedia, if you read an article about George Bush, you believe that it’s factual because Wikipedia is a credible source," Nazarov explained.
Major media applications
Once off and running, the Mine team believes Mediachain could be incorporated into existing popular social media platforms.
New media companies like Tumblr, they said, could enable its users to search images, even those substantial altered by subsequent creators, by using its API. This, in turn, they said, would enable Tumblr to better monetize through improved analytics.
"As soon as the content hits Tumblr, they lose all analytics. An incentive is you get cross-platform analytics and we think that is a compelling incentive for larger platforms," Nazarov said.
Futhermore, Nazarov and Walden see applications as Facebook and Apple both explore deals that could see them hosting the content of major global media outlets.
With reliable information on identity and rights, Nazarov and Walden suggested these efforts would be better able to meet the needs of even major business content creators.
"The idea here is that, as a publisher, CoinDesk would be able to publish an article and set the terms for that article for it to be consumed in an application like Facebook Instant Articles," Nazarov said.
They went so far as to project that new efforts could spring up more easily, allowing innovation on a platform layer that has so far produced mostly market-leading players such as Spotify and Netflix, with few competitors in between.
For now, however, Mediachain cautions that its use of new technology may slow its efforts, as IPFS is best described as a "bleeding-edge" technology, and its ability to advance on development goals may affect their own roadmap.
Further, the Mediachain team sees subsequent issues in ensuring the durability of its database, as well as in creating standards for metadata.
Still, the platform is now soliciting developers for its efforts to attack such challenges, cautioning in its launch post:
"We are only getting started."