By now, unless if they have been living under a rock, everyone has heard- if not experienced- bitcoin. Some photo agencies have even experienced accepting Bitcoin in payment for licenses. However, what few know is how the technology behind Bitcoin could one day change the world of photography.
Reduced to a very simple explanation, blockchain (the technology behind Bitcoin) works like this: When someone performs a transaction using Bitcoin, that information is added to a “block” ( a data file). On a regular cycle, the block is closed, and a new one is created that includes all the data from the previous block, thus creating a permanent chain of data, the blockchain. Instead of using a central depository, the blockchain is distributed in numerous servers around the world whose function is to make sure that each transaction is valid after solving a challenge (complex math problem) and thus securing the block. Since there are thousands of “miners” distributed around the world, it is impossible to alter a block without each one accepting the changes, making hacking close to impossible. Furthermore, since each block contains the previous blocks, it would be a gargantuan mathematical undertaking. (for a more advanced explanation, please continue here)
With its highs and lows, Bitcoin is here to stay. As well, its underlying technology is gathering the attention of other types of business interested in securing and decentralizing information. Photography is one of them. Since the only thing that resides in a blockchain is data, it is rather easy to include a photo ( which is after all, in its digital format, just a bunch of numbers). And along with it, any relevant information.
The first obvious usage is to secure copyright information. Since once the information is created, it cannot be altered, a photo can forever be associated to its creator without any possibility of dispute. German company Ascribe is currently offering this service, mostly aimed at the fine art market. Once created, a digital file holds a cryptographic ID with its origin. It can then be replicated in limited numbered digital copies ( all approved by its creator), and ownership can be transferred officially. An artist can then follow the track of how many times and to whom his work has been sold to. However, it does not track illegal usages or reports on them. For that to happen, it would have to be linked to a web crawler and image matching technology, something the company is considering. Proof of Existence, based in Argentina, offers a similar service, albeit much more rudimentary.
Another application is building a core image registry that would contain information on every photo taken and its copyright owner. Here again, the core value would be the undisputed proof of ownership of copyright. A more advanced model could also carry every associated transaction, offering the seeker an unaltered history. One practical usage would be the ability for anyone to check on any potential copyright infringement before usage (an API would make it automatic). However, it would need an intense and sustained involvement of the photography community to succeed, something that has been, because of its massively brittle structure, quasi-impossible in the past. Nevertheless, it would undoubtedly be beneficial in providing photographers a stronger structure in the face of rabid infringements. As well, this could be as used a core database for the projected Reproduction Rights Organization (RRO) in the works in the US.
A few under the radar companies are working on such projects and one could expect to see the first practical implementation early in 2016.
Finally, by locking up the original image information into an unbreakable data structure, blockchain technology could also be used to keep an unaltered version of a photograph. If all photos taken were automatically stored in the blockchain at their creation point, it would be easy to compare an image to its original and detect any alterations. For photojournalism, for example, this would solve its ongoing struggle against manipulation.
Because of its complexity as well as its novelty, blockchain technology as it applies to photography is still very much in its early infancy. While it clearly offers much better protection than any solution currently on the market, it faces the daunting task of massive adoption by a very disparate group of players with the richest ones, like Instagram, Google or Pinterest clearly against any reinforcement of the copyright rules. Once clear and practical applications become available on the market, especially coming from well-funded operations, it might gain a sufficient stronghold to maybe become a new standard.
Photo by btckeychain