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Blockchain and Media, a One-Two Punch

RRE Blog

Blockchain and Media, a One-Two Punch

Alice Lloyd George

Why we invested in Mediachain

In 1967, three years after winning the world heavyweight championship, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title after refusing to join the U.S. army. Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail. At the height of the controversy, this photograph of Ali echoing martyr Saint Sebastian was taken for Esquire. It was one of the magazine’s most iconic covers, helping to fuel Ali’s status as a symbol of counterculture during the Vietnam war. The case of “the People’s Champion” worked its way up to the Supreme Court, and the conviction was eventually overturned.

My maternal grandfather, Carl Fischer, was a photographer in the 1960s. He worked with art director George Lois and shot that iconic cover as well as others for Esquire. Lois, famous for his art direction, was equally famous for stealing credit from the many creatives he worked with, including Julian Koenig, known for the Volkswagen “Think Small” ad. In 2008 the Museum of Modern Art had an exhibition of Lois’ work in which he was credited for both the photographs and the magazine covers. Carl’s name was not mentioned (the museum later corrected the attribution.)

Needless to say, when I met Mediachain co-founder Jesse Walden last year, his vision for giving power back to creators resonated. The road is littered with attempts to tackle the issue of attribution through digital rights management (DRM.) Traditional approaches have relied on erecting walls coupled with litigation. Now, permissionless technologies like the blockchain have inspired entrepreneurs to rethink infrastructures and come up with ways to take down those walls and share openly, while also preserving critical information.

One of the key learnings of the blockchain is that it is possible to exchange data or tokens (like bitcoin) without having to trust a central entity or middleman. Mediachain is an exciting application of this insight. So how does it work? Mediachain is an open-source protocol that allows parties to cryptographically sign statements about units of media, which is to say, any information about a song, image, or GIF, can be published to a blockchain, creating a tamper-proof record that can be referenced at any time. That information is written to a decentralized datastore, and perceptual resolvers (ie. visual Shazams) can be plugged in to query what is essentially a universal media library for a match. (More on how it works here.) It’s even possible to identify original images that have been edited, cropped, or repurposed. In a case like the Muhammad Ali shot, we would easily be able to see metadata for both Carl Fischer as creator of the image, and George Lois as art director who used the image in a magazine cover.

The Mediachain team is working with established organizations like Getty Images, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), MOMA and Europeana. A registry of existing creative commons images is just the first step. The protocol will also enable anyone to automatically claim authorship at the time of image creation, e.g. as soon as you snap an Instagram. This is significant, as we are living in an era of explosive online content growth. Benedict Evans at a16z recently estimated that in 2015 alone, 2–3 trillion photos were shared across Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat. But while the volume and velocity of user-generated content has taken off, the intelligence we have about that content has not kept up. Our ability to discover and understand media (via computer vision) and attribute it (via metadata) is going to unlock all kinds of untapped value. Imagine if, while reading an article, you could easily tip the creator of a GIF that’s embedded. Or if you could get credit when aggregators, like the Fat Jew or FuckJerry, steal your joke and take it viral.

There are a few other innovative projects extending the blockchain metaphor to other areas. These include OpenBazaar, a decentralized e-commerce platform that has already been downloaded 100,000 times since mid-May, as well as Blockstack, which offers decentralized services for identity and authentication, and, which is making a future of machine-to-machine payments possible [disclosure — RRE is an investor]. Critics of such projects call them “academic.” But many technologies that are revolutionary today started out looking like research projects, notably ARPANET, circa 1968. In the case of Mediachain, a decentralized and persistent metadata layer makes a number of interesting things immediately possible:

  • Real connectivity can be built between platforms. Today platforms are fragmented — their data is siloed and not interoperable.
  • Creators and their audiences can now connect directly. This reestablishes a flow of value that was previously broken. Destination platforms have been built that do a great job at this, such as Patreon, started by my friend Sam Yam, as well as the Kickstarters and Indiegogos of the world. Mediachain can enable the distributed equivalent, a way to establish the connection between creators and their audiences while those audiences are naturally roaming the web.
  • Attribution also helps publishers. Spotify recently paid a $30 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit for royalties that they withheld because they didn’t know whom to pay.
  • With true data hygiene comes valuable analytics. This can help publishers and institutions that want to better track how their content gets circulated. Just over a year ago, our portfolio company Buzzfeed played a key role in how The Dress went viral, with 38 million views of their main post and visits from every country in the world within 12 hours — see the GIF below, which gives a rough idea of how the image blew up internationally in just a few days.

When it comes to analytics, not all organizations are as sophisticated as Buzzfeed. Mediachain’s solution will enable us to track how content flows through the web, and help publishers better understand how, where, and when their content gets shared.

This just scratches the surface for how we might capture cultural value as it increasingly goes digital. The question is what kinds of new applications people might come up with on top of the open data shared in Mediachain. Developers, creators and rights-owners interested in contributing can get involved on GitHub or their public Slack.

Today we are announcing RRE’s participation in Mediachain Labs’ seed financing. I’m thrilled we get to work with companies like Mediachain and am excited to see the team build out their ambitious vision.