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The road to protecting content on blockchain-based systems

(Image credit: Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock)

Blockchain technology is as promising as it is nascent. There’s a wealth of potential in applications across industries, but its relative newness means that there are some major hurdles to overcome before it can seriously be considered at an enterprise level. 

One area that many user cases have been envisioned in is the area of content ownership, particularly where the rather murky domain of copyrighting is concerned. Creators are constantly trying to find new ways to monetise their content, and the blockchain offering is appealing in that regard – with a public ledger, there is no question of who owns what, as it is recorded on a database viewable to anyone. Insofar as profitability, there is no middleman to shear a percentage off the revenue that a content creator generates. It’s for this reason that blockchain systems are referred to as trustless.

Proponents of blockchain have often classed it as a secure and resilient means of storing data, due to two factors – the retention of the private key used to sign the action of adding the data for traceability, and the immutability afforded by the tamper-proof architecture. It’s been envisioned as an ideal mechanism for use in a chain of custody for intellectual property ownership – one has at their disposition a list of timestamped transactions that can be traced back to their source, after all. Transparency and permanence are highly valuable to these ends.

Of course, actually storing entire files across every node on a network is an incredibly costly and not the intended design of a blockchain. For those that are larger than a few bytes, it’s a lot more practical to just pass the file through a hashing algorithm, and store the resulting string on a public blockchain. This way, a content creator can easily prove ownership of that file through the unique hashing id.. 

I’m of the opinion that off-chain storage (combining hashes stored in transactions and smart contracts with decentralised storage methods) is the way forward. If you take, for instance, the Ethereum blockchain – probably the most popular with developers at the moment due to the Turing-complete programming capabilities – it’s growing in size incredibly quickly. It’s not designed for storage of documents, photos or video clips, but for small amounts of transactional data. 

As mentioned, blockchain technology has yet to be refined. A reality where a decentralised copyright protection system is widely used may still be a few years off. The current infrastructure in place for the purposes of tracking and protecting IP has had billions of dollars invested into it over a long period of time. Integrating newer solutions would require a lengthy transition phase with rigorous testing. Given the anticipated cost to upgrade these systems, it is not something that can be rushed into, but rather necessitates thoughtful consideration before implementation. There is a certain baseline to be mindful of with regards to the performance metrics (processing time, ease of use, etc.). 

Many look to IPFS (opens in new tab) as a means by which to store data alongside the uploading of hashes to a blockchain. Billed as a ‘peer-to-peer hypermedia distribution protocol’, it embraces decentralisation – with cloud storage, a user would need to upload a file to a third-party server. Anyone wishing to access this would need to query the server to retrieve it. With the IPFS mechanism, a user can host the file themselves, and the other can simply circumvent third-party involvement by downloading it directly from the host (not unlike torrenting). 

To further expand on the idea of combining blockchain with protocols such as IPFS, it’s entirely possible to deploy smart contracts where creators can sell access to their content, in exchange for whichever native token the blockchain supports – they can also enjoy greater returns, since there’s no middleman involved. 

I’ve been a proponent of increasing confidentiality and privacy on blockchain-based systems for some time. There’s a lot of misconception as to what is doable with decentralised ledgers, and I think those touting business solutions suffer from a lack of understanding: public ledgers are inherently viewable to anyone. For companies that don’t want their sensitive information analysed and traced, there needs to be a degree of obfuscation which I believe can only be achieved by operating a blockchain in conjunction with other technologies.

Another issue that will undoubtedly delay adoption in the field is a shortage of experience when it comes to the technical side. Distributed systems are very different from the hierarchical structures we’ve focused the majority of development on over the years. Much of the space is still focused on providing viable proof-of-concepts – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To deploy these systems on a wide scale for industrial use, we want to be absolutely sure that there’s no gaping holes in their engineering. 

There’s a number of components that will need to fluidly interact in content protection and management – oracles, interoperability with other blockchains, and complex smart contracts. There’s several crucial cogs in the machine that need to run smoothly and without glitches before the resulting platform can be introduced as a viable solution. 

Once the technology side of things is perfected, there’s still external factors to consider – notably, the cooperation of institutions managing copyrights. It’s likely that a national registry would need to be created (there currently isn’t one, so a significant amount of resources would be required to put such a system in place, and to then link it with a blockchain platform).   

There’s still a lot of skepticism about the real-world applications of blockchain technology – no doubt due to the huge fluctuations in the price of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Only time will remedy this: as we see it creep into day-to-day life and the masses are educated on its functioning, I expect we’ll see a much more optimistic perception of the field. There is a huge amount of interest in the tech sector, and we’re beginning to see teams roll out pilot projects around the globe. For content protection, I believe that we’ll soon witness a shift from the incumbent and somewhat problematic infrastructure to more efficient and reliable decentralised mediums.  

Michael Smolenski, CEO and Founder of Lightstreams (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock

Michael Smolenski is the CEO and founder of Lightstreams. An ex-Goldman Sachs Software Engineer and the founder of several startups, he has won a number of blockchain awards for innovative solutions in micro-insurance and real estate.