Building a Better Future for Creators on the Blockchain


Coney Island (ascribe)

We envision nothing less than a comprehensive ownership layer for the internet as a registry for all media.

– ascribe whitepaper

“On the Internet, it’s difficult for creators of digital content to get compensated fairly for their work,” the ascribe whitepaper begins.

In my own daily browsing, I see examples of this quite often. People try to pass off others’ photographs as their own or post digital artworks without any credits to be seen. If the piece cannot be successfully attributed to the original creator, it’s unlikely that the creator will receive any sort of compensation. Though the Internet is a prime location to easily exhibit one’s creativity (just a couple of clicks can get one image out to thousands of viewers), many artists feel as they do not have a secure way to do so.

With ascribe, creators can lock in attribution for their work in under a minute. I tested the platform with a photograph I took this past weekend at Coney Island, and it worked seamlessly. After filling out a short form with my name, the title of the work, and the year created, my work was registered. From there, I could share the link to my photograph on social media or via email. I could also securely post the photograph on an image-sharing site and still have definitive proof of my ownership.

How does this work? Blockchain. The ascribe whitepaper details how they do it: “We use the bitcoin blockchain, a distributed database where anyone can add information, but no one can delete an action once it’s committed, and no one owns the overall database.” By registering Coney Island on ascribe, I’ve created a permanent link between my name and the work. When someone views my photograph on ascribe, they’ll see an ID number. And if they search that ID number on the blockchain, they can see the exact date & time that I put the artwork on ascribe.

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A screenshot of Coney Island on ascribe

I met with one of the founders of the company, Trent McConaghy, to learn more about how ascribe is using blockchain technology to bring about benefits to digital artists, as well as other creators in today’s society.

Emily Braun: Can you begin by telling me about what inspired the idea for ascribe, as well as a run-down of the services offered?

Trent McConaghy: I’m a technologist and a super geek, so I get excited about various sorts of technologies. I found out about Bitcoin fairly soon after it came out, and I would go on & on about it. One day, my wife & I were sitting in a cafe after visiting an art gallery, and I was going on about Bitcoin and the blockchain. This was in the summer of 2013. The topic switched, and she started talking about art. She mentioned that there’s this big “elephant in the room” problem of digital art. No one could identify how someone could own digital art. And the neurons were still firing from our Bitcoin discussion, apparently, because we asked the question together: “What if you could own digital art the way that you own Bitcoin?”

We pulled on that thread for a while, and you know, it made logical sense. We talked to some artist friends, and they were like, “I want this yesterday!” It was enough to start going on the path of building a prototype. After a while, we were like, “Okay, how does this connect to the real world?” There’s a whole set of laws around that called IP (intellectual property). Specifically with art, it’s copyright law. As we were working on the prototype, we started incorporating all of the proper stuff with respect to copyright. So that’s what we were building towards – blockchain registry of work, legals declaring copyright, and legals of when you transfer ownership from one person to the next.

As we worked with artists on developing the platform, some of them said, “Well, this is all great, but I’m still scared to share it online. I feel like I lose control. Even though I theoretically own it, I don’t feel like I practically own it, because there could be copies all over the Internet.” After hearing this, we built a piece of functionality called WhereOnTheNet to actually identify where works show up on the Internet. To do that, we basically crawl the web.

The user experience is super simple; you don’t have to know anything about Bitcoin. In fact, most of the Bitcoin functionality is hidden, so you’d have to look around a little bit to find it. At the end of the day, the users aren’t thinking about Bitcoin – they’re thinking, “How can I claim that I’ve created this? How can I sell this to a collector? How can I consign this to a gallery to sell on my behalf?”

Braun: So why are you using the Bitcoin blockchain?

McConaghy: It’s sort of the best that we have right now. The main mechanism is that it does time stamping. And it has these new sort of characteristics, things like immutability – this idea that once you’ve put something onto the blockchain, it doesn’t go away. And there’s also the idea of decentralization, which is powerful & important for a database of ownership. It means that no corporation controls it – not a gallery, not ascribe, no one. So those are really the characteristics that we like: time stamping, immutability, and decentralization.

We don’t take advantage of a lot of features of the blockchain, but that’s okay. I mean, when someone buys a truck, do they use every single feature in the truck? Probably not; they use the ones they care about. So we use the features of the blockchain that we care about, and the rest doesn’t matter to us as much.

Braun: Have you experienced any resistance to change in the art world? What sort of feedback have you gotten from galleries?

McConaghy: It’s a distribution, like in any field. When you’re dealing with digital art, the leading digital artists of the world tend to be technologists. So they’re very open to this idea, especially due to the fact that they’ve been feeling that pain. The digital artists have collectors who have been establishing & collecting their work over the years, and then the galleries see that these artists and the collectors like this, so they agree to go along with it. The gallerists & the collectors tend not to be technologists as much, so it takes time, but it’s a very easy system to accept.

In art, what matters the most is provenance, the history of ownership. If you don’t know the provenance, you don’t have anything. You might as well have a fake. And what ascribe brings is a way of having perfect provenance. It went from zero provenance (that’s what we had before for digital art) to near perfect provenance. That’s actually a very useful thing, so it’s easier for people to accept.

Braun: What challenges have you faced so far, and are there any challenges you anticipate for the future?

McConaghy: Education takes time. The digital artists get it. The collectors & the gallerists? They’re coming along. There are others in the ecosystem too –  archives, museums, TV stations, all sorts of auction houses… Overall, for this sort of system to work, you have to be working with different sorts of players from across the board. And different organizations have different levels of understanding. There’s been a lot of talk about blockchain, especially in this past year, so there’s a lot of curiosity. But education is definitely the biggest challenge.

In terms of technology, using the blockchain is fairly straightforward, so that’s no problem. But the center of what we do is making intellectual property easy to use. To do a good job on that, we’ve brought on a full-time IP lawyer who works out different licensing agreements as needed for the different customers that we deal with. That took some learning on our part.

Braun: Can you tell me more about ascribe’s partnerships?

McConaghy: Sure! Overall, we’re starting with digital art, but we’re not ending on digital art. Digital artists are really feeling the pain, so it’s a good thing to have as our initial place to work. But in a more broad sense, if you think about the internet itself, there is copying everywhere. If I want to use an image that I find on the internet, how can I actually use that image? How do I find the person to license it from? If I go to a stock photo site, they only have their subset of photos.

When I’m searching for images to use, I usually do restrict it to the stuff that can be used free for commercial use, images with Creative Commons licenses. We’re very happy to be working with Creative Commons France and other Creative Commons organizations. If I create something and then declare it’s Creative Commons licensed in a particular way, how do I declare that? Where do I put that? You can actually declare it now with ascribe. You can etch that information into the blockchain.

Within the art world itself, we have worked with many art prizes. We’ve created a system where there’s a way for artists to register their work with ascribe and submit to the art prize at the same time. It’s been sort of a win-win-win for everybody. It makes it easier for artists to submit their work in a secure fashion that they trust. It makes it easier for the art prize folks to do the judging. And for us, we acquire new users. We’re pretty happy with that.

Braun: I saw that ascribe has also held a three day hackathon to develop companies on top of the ascribe platform. Have there been any projects using ascribe that really excited you?

McConaghy: Every single project [at the hackathon] really impressed me. We limited it to twenty-five people, and it was basically half artists and half technologists. And many of these artists were also technologists, and vice versa. The team that won was a group of both artists & hackers (and even a lawyer). Their whole project was the idea of a single piece of artwork that can be shared with multiple owners – how do you do that? They used the ascribe mechanics of limited digital editions. For example, they’d have a single art piece with a thousand different owners. And every single owner is built into the ascribe mechanics using the blockchain to have the history of ownership. It’s sort of like shares in a work. It really works for digital, right? It’s harder for physical, because everyone wants to have that single painting in their room, but with digital, it works perfectly.

One of the artists we work with, Harm van den Dorpel, is a leading digital artists. He has an art piece he’s been building over the last couple years called deli near info. It’s a website where people can contribute images or text; it’s almost like poetry, haikus but with mixed media. He oversees it all, and I’ve added content for fun; it’s really cool to have this collaborative art piece. And now, he integrated with ascribe. Every time you contribute work to deli near info, you can choose to ascribe it. Now, there’s attribution in hierarchy, attribution at the lower levels of people who attribute and the overall attribution of Harm van den Dorpel. So that’s a new kind of concept, this sort of lineage of creation.

Braun: Do you personally create art? How about your wife?

McConaghy: Neither of us are professional artists. My wife is a professional curator, so she works with artists. I actually grew up in art; my mother was an art teacher, so I really love art. I live and breathe art.

Braun: Do you have any work on ascribe?

McConaghy: I take a bunch of random, silly photos and ascribe them & give them to friends. I’m actually building up a collection of digital art. We’re working with a lot of great artists, as well art galleries like Cointemporary (an online art gallery). Every time something goes through Cointemporary, I buy one of the editions. My wife & I used to collect physical art, and we actually have physical art sitting in warehouses in Vancouver, NYC, and elsewhere. It’s kind of annoying, because we moved to Berlin, and it’s like, how do we move this stuff? But now we can just collect digital art, so we’re very happy about that.

So that’s what I have in my collection online – the art I’ve collected from others and my own silly things that I share for fun. There’s also a few other things, like limited digital edition comic books. For example, we did a promotion with Titanium Comics. This was part of the vision overall, to create something not just for art but for creators of all walks, including photographers, including 3D designers, including comic book artists. And it’s happening, so that’s very exciting for us.

Braun: Have you ever bought art with bitcoins?

McConaghy: Yep! In fact, all of the art on Cointemporary is sold for bitcoins. So it’s actually a double whammy with Bitcoin, right? You can buy Bitcoin-secured/Bitcoin-ascribed art with Bitcoin itself.

Braun: And what was your first Bitcoin purchase ever?

McConaghy: When I first got Bitcoin in 2010, it was really hard to buy stuff. I bought some from a friend, and they kind of sat there dormant for years. When I moved to Berlin, I went to ROOM77, which was the first brick-and-mortar of anything that accepted Bitcoin. I bought a beer with Bitcoin, and that was probably my very first Bitcoin purchase. And ROOM77 is a great Bitcoin community; every two to four weeks, there’s a meet-up there, and everyone drinks beer with Bitcoin.

Braun: What do you see in the future – for ascribe, for Bitcoin, for blockchain technology?

McConaghy: I treat those very separately. So for Bitcoin itself, as a currency or otherwise, I’m excited about this whole idea that you don’t have to rely on a government’s decisions for your currency to hold value. Or maybe it’s a commodity like gold, so we’ll see, but I’m not hitching my fortunes on that one way or another.

On the blockchain itself, it’s a pretty innovative database technology. Although it’s not so good at characteristics like scalability, it has these new characteristics that are cool. And it’s interesting that it’s inspiring a lot of ideas & innovation that can really help drive society forward in new ways. There are a bunch of companies out there doing super cool things with blockchain technology.

For ascribe, we like to think of ourselves as one of those great companies doing super cool stuff with blockchain technology. And overall, our mission is creators first. We think that the creators on the internet are getting a raw deal. Why is it that I post something to the internet and I lose control? And why is it really hard for me to monetize my work, to license to someone, to sell to someone? There’s a huge opportunity to rebalance back towards the creators. You can still have the marketplaces and the collectors, but we want to shift some power back to the creators themselves. We want them to be able to make a living when they’re creating high quality work, and that’s actually really hard right now. So I’m excited that ascribe can make a dent that way. And you know, maybe change the world and rewire the internet. That’s pretty exciting.

– Emily Braun

To check out the ascribe platform & register your work, click here!

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