How Ascribe Uses Bitcoin Tech to Help Underserved Artists

CoinDesk speaks with Ascribe CTO Trent McConaghy, who co-founded a startup behind a blockchain-powered IP ownership platform.

AccessTimeIconJul 2, 2015 at 9:15 p.m. UTC
Updated Dec 12, 2022 at 12:46 p.m. UTC
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“The creators of the Internet are getting a raw deal.”

So says Trent McConaghy, CTO for Ascribe, a startup that is using the bitcoin blockchain to timestamp intellectual property and create a sustainable ownership structure for artwork and other digital media.

In a new interview with CoinDesk, McConaghy, co-author of a recently published white paper “Towards An Ownership Layer For The Internet”, explained how his startup is aiming to provide a foundational layer for artists and other independent creators to establish ownership over their works on a decentralized database – the bitcoin blockchain – and protect those rights following publication.

The company was conceived in 2013, during which time McConaghy – alongside co-founders Masha McConaghy and Bruce Pon – explored how the ownership concepts underlying bitcoin could be applied to other types of digital assets.

He told CoinDesk:

“The question we asked then and there was, 'Why cant we own digital art the way we own bitcoin?' And that was the driving question in those early days.”

Ascribe recently announced $2m in new seed funding, backing it received from Earlybird Venture, Digital Currency Group, Freelands Ventures and a number of angel investors.

Early days

According to McConaghy, his background and those of his co-founders strongly influenced the trajectory and, ultimately, the scope of the Ascribe project.

CEO Bruce Pon spent years working in the financial services, an activity that McConaghy described as "building banks". Masha McConaghy, on the other hand, was a career art curator and exhibitionist, working in Paris, Berlin and Vancouver, and received a doctorate studying the relationship between commerce and art.

McConaghy himself developed and built technology companies like Solido Design Automation, which develops industrial automation software. He said he discovered bitcoin in 2010, and later became part of Berlin’s bitcoin scene after he and Masha (to whom he is married) relocated to the city in 2013.

It was in that atmosphere that work on the basic concepts of Ascribe first began, with the project growing following consultations with artists working in digital mediums.

McConaghy explained:

“We started exploring this technology and thinking about it. So we went and talked to different artist friends and they said, 'Yes, we want this yesterday.' The thing about digital artists is that they are hackers and technologists and so they think about this, living and breathing technology.”

Ownership platform

By the fall of 2013, the team was inscribing ownership claims on the bitcoin blockchain.

Over the next months, they grew the initial concept into plans for a platform that McConaghy said was aimed at providing an easy-to-use resource for creators to be able to both establish provenance as well as trace the usage of their content.

He explained:

"What we realized is we can use copyright law as the basis of what we’re doing and have that be really easy to use, and use the blockchain as a way of recording these transactions of registering a copyright, of transferring ownerships, of licensing from person A to B, things like consignment or loaning."

Following a private beta in the fall of 2014, Ascribe officially opened for business in February. Among the tools currently in development is an in-house search engine that allows creators to canvas the Internet for copies of their work. The search tool, currently in private beta, also grew out of discussions with artists asking for a means to trace the distribution of their work.

"It really is about ownership and understanding what is going on with work that's attributed to you. That’s kind of where we are," he said, adding that the goal is "to serve the needs of the little guy".

McConaghy said that for him and the rest of the Ascribe team, the process ahead means further honing the platform to make usage simpler, concluding:

"Our view is, let a thousand flowers bloom. We just want to be the plumbing, we want to make this digital ownership processing dead simple, dead easy, so people don’t have to think about it."
Images via Ascribe, Shutterstock


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