Many people seem to think that blockchain technology would help with DRM ( or “content protection”) because blockchain tech (the Bitcoin usecase in particular) proved for the first time that creating digital scarcity is possible, and DRM is fundamentally about enforcing digital scarcity. Some are envisioning that just as a bitcoin can have its ownership transferred from one person to another there must be a way to do the same with a media file.

However, there is a fundamental difference between the scarcity of a bitcoin and the (envisioned) scarcity of a music file. In the case of Bitcoin all the participants in the system agree that bitcoins should be scarce, as the very operation of the system relies on this scarcity. It’s perfectly possible to change the Bitcoin software (it is software after all) so that anyone can copy their Bitcoin balance and give the copied balance to someone else. If a majority of participants were to agree to make this change it could be rolled out through a software update, and people could now “share” bitcoins freely with one another. The chance of a majority of participants choosing to implement this “feature” would of course be low as the Bitcoin currency would quickly hyperinflate and lose all its value. In short people have an economic incentive to preserve the scarcity which translates to social pressure to preserve the scarcity.

By contrast, in the music file case there is no direct disincentive for end-users to copy a file. If I have a copy of Taylor Swifts “Shake it Off” and I give a copy to you, I can still enjoy the tune, and you can too. If you then give a copy to your friend it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the song.

Not only is there no economic incentive to preserve the scarcity in the music file case, there is an (at least short-term) economic incentive (for media consumers) in the opposite direction: In file-sharing networks you often get rewarded for sharing copies of files you have with copies of files you don’t already have. Add to that a subculture where groups compete to be the first to “release” (or break the DRM of) a music or video file, and you have a strong (at least sub-cultural) social pressure working against DRM and against digital scarcity.

Where blockchain technology could help however is to lower the barrier between the artist and the end-user of the content. Right now there is a byzantine layer of corporate bureaucracy between artist and music fan. The blockchain can help cut out a lot of that complexity and bring the artist and fan closer together where the listener can directly pay the artist in a simple, fair and transparent way without going through layers of ossified corporations and conglomerates.

This might ultimately be the best weapon to deal with the issues of piracy: If the music fan no longer has to pay a middleman or large corporation through a cumbersome process to access the music of their favorite artist they will likely be much more willing to support the artist financially.

Disclaimer: The author is involved with Ujo Music, a new open music platform that uses the Ethereum blockchain. Ujo Music lets content creators easily manage their rights and makes it easy for music consumers to connect with and reward their favorite artists.

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Written by

Christian Lundkvist


31 January 2016