The rise of blockchain has been a revolutionary event in many areas, including copyright. Providing a guaranteed date of creation is only the tip of the iceberg of new opportunities for artists, but it still deserves to be addressed.
The ownership of a work, a matter of date
The rule is simple: the author of a creative work owns the copyright ab initio.
However, as ownership is acquired by the simple act of creation, without any registration requirement, the author often keeps no record of the first date of creation.
For the sake of simplicity, the person who exploits the work under his name is thus presumed to be the author and owner of the copyright. This simple mechanism is not error-free.
For example, Mr A might have created a work without disclosing it, considering that retouching was necessary prior to publication. Mr B might become aware of this unfinished work and publish it under his name, thus becoming the presumed owner of the work. In these circumstances, Mr. A will be able to claim ownership of the work only if he can prove that he created the work at a prior date to its publication by Mr. B. This could prove to be very complicated for Mr. A, if he has not kept dated records of the various stages of creation.
Ownership of a work is therefore strictly linked to proof of the date of creation: the person who establishes having first created a work is its legitimate owner.
As the question of anteriority is not new, several solutions have been developed in the past to keep dated records of the various stages of creation. The best known are :
- Filing with a society of authors (for example, the SIAE in Italy and the SACEM in France),
- Sending a registered letter containing the work to yourself,
- The French singularity of the Soleau envelope (now also available in digital version e-Soleau | INPI.fr) or,
- Filing with a notary or bailiff.
The solutions offered by the blockchain
A blockchain is a sort of public register where all transactions are certified and stored in a chain of data blocks. Each new transaction is time-stamped, stored in a new block and hashed (linked inseparably) to the previous block. Certification is done by the community of “miners”, the members of the blockchain.
Generally speaking, compared to traditional solutions, the benefits of blockchain are:
- The ability to record all the ” stages ” in the conception of a work as they occur, so that the creator has evidence of the date of its creation as soon as it is completed;
- The ease of registration and of verification of the date of creation by anyone at any time anywhere in the world;
- The immutability of the record: once the transaction is recorded on the blockchain it is impossible to delete or amend.
There are two solutions for establishing proof of a definite date on blockchain: hashing and NFT.
A “hash” of the work is generated by means of a hash algorithm, i.e. a sequence of bits that is strictly related to the data of the file that contains the work. The hash generated is then recorded on blockchain to assign it a definite date.
Since the hash uniquely identifies the file containing the work and the hash has been recorded on blockchain, it will be possible to prove the date of creation of the work.
However, the original file must not be lost. Indeed, on one hand, the original file is not recorded on blockchain, and, on the other hand, it is not possible to recover it from the hash alone. If you lose the file, you will not be able to prove anything.
An NFT (Non-Fungible Token) can be simply defined as a certificate of ownership stored on blockchain. This certificate has different attributes (metadata) such as: name, symbol, unique hash, timestamp, etc.
NFT has the advantage of significantly reducing the risk of losing the original file. Indeed, the original file will not be hosted on the author’s computer, but rather alternatively “on-chain” or “off-chain”.
When the file is stored on-chain, it is inherent to the NFT and will be immutably and indefinitely written on the blockchain. All this is great but has one major downside: the cost of storing on the blockchain amounts to several tens of euros for a single kilobyte (kb)!
In contrast, when the file is stored “off-chain”, i.e. on servers that may be centralised or decentralised (IPFS), the NFT only carries the address where the file is located, known as the “tokenURI”. This address allows the work to be identified and retrieved, while drastically reducing the storage cost.
To give a fun example: it’s like a treasure hunt! The hash describes the treasure but does not tell us where it is. The off-chain NFT describes the treasure and provides us with a treasure map. The on-chain NFT contains the actual treasure.
In conclusion, although there is not yet a consensus on the evidentiary value of blockchain, there is a trend towards the creation of decentralized blockchain-based registers, as demonstrated by the recent SIAE project. The shift may be just around the corner.