A startup based in Germany is giving away digital photographs created by an American visual artist, which are cryptographically signed and verified on the blockchain.
Ascribe was started last year by three co-founders with backgrounds in art, technology, and finance. Bruce Pon, the company’s CEO, has invested in numerous fintech startups and worked for several consulting firms; Trent McConaghy Ph.D, the company’s CTO and lead machine learning architect, previously founded several AI startups; and Maria McConaghy Ph.D, who has worked for several museums, including as a curatorial assistant for the Louvre in Paris, France.
“We believe simplifying and streamlining the user interface for copyright management will be the driver behind an unprecedented explosion of creativity on the Internet. The more artists feel that they can safely show, sell and license their work without fear of having their work taken, the more they will produce. And we’ll all be a little better off because of it,” wrote Ascribe Director of Marketing Mike Klein.
To showcase the Berlin tech startup’s digital copyright and verification system, limited edition pictures that combine everyday settings with abstract design are being given away.
Those who receive the digital artwork will be able to prove that the copy is an original, by comparing a cryptographic hash of the picture with a correspondent one on the Bitcoin blockchain. If they match, people can be assured it is one of the limited edition proofs.
"Essentially, the process mirrors the way in which the art world has traditionally established value through ‘originality’, which up until now has been problematic in the digital space,” wrote Bill Murray, the editor of The Space.
“As automation begins to have an impact on real-world employment opportunities, many thinkers in this field are beginning to ask how new sources of income might be derived from participation in the digital space. Establishing ownership of our personal data (instead of giving it away for free) might be a way to do this.”
— – Bill Murray
Ascribe Chief Policy Officer Greg McMullen explained that when an artist registers a piece of art on the platform, they can set a number of editions available to the world, “similar to the way a printmaker will decide on a number of prints.”
“The editions declared by the artist is a promise to buyers that there will be no more editions. This covenant is legally enforceable as a contract. Since ascribe tracks artworks and editions, if an artist breaks the contract, it’s very easy to see.”
— – Greg McMullen
The service is just one part of a platform that Ascribe is building for digital artwork and the management of copyrights, but it is one of the first real world tests for the concept. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said one of the most remarkable achievements of Bitcoin was its ability to make something digital scarce. Now Ascribe is taking that from the world of currencies and payments to art, so that all digital forms can be rare and, the company hopes, more valuable.
Following in the footsteps of Youtube and Facebook, Ascribe wants to give digital artists the ability to legally license their work, trade and transfer it, and find violators inappropriately using their work.
The company raised a $2 million seed round earlier this year, and is now further developing its system, as well as the machine learning technology the firm will use to search the web for any violations in using Ascribe verified artwork. The firm is also approaching more artists about the platform, and beginning to look into offering different copyright licenses alongside the current creative commons.
“I believe ascribe opens a huge door for the art world. More importantly, Ascribe allows artists who are working in the digital realm to stay within it. Digital works of art now have the ability to stay true to their original form as opposed to steering away from it for the sake of distribution,” said Jackson Hallberg, the artist whose artwork is being given away, in an interview with Ascribe.
“Digital technologies are increasing their influence across all art mediums. I think it is inevitable that digital art and platforms like ascribe will be at the forefront of the art world in the coming years.”
— – Jackson Hallberg
Ascribe is not the first company to explore the use of Bitcoin’s decentralized ledger for authentication purposes. Proof of Existence and Blocksign, among others, have allowed people to “hash” their documents into the blockchain, allowing it to be verified later on. Although these projects were focused on legal papers, there are other companies’ exploring the process.
EverLedger is exploring a sightly different business model and has began to record thousands of diamonds and their unique characteristics into the blockchain, in attempt to prevent fraud. Though a different mission than Ascribe’s, EverLedger is one of the forerunners in proving the case for verifying items that aren’t bitcoins on the currency’s decentralized ledger.
Monograph, which uses Namecoin’s blockchain, and Verisart both launched earlier this year. Alongside Ascribe they are some of the first companies to form services around blockchain-based solutions for art verification.
Both Ascribe and Verisart are attempting to differentiate themselves from the competition, and previous developers who have explored the concept, by attempting to create a complete copyright solution for digital artists, not just a blockchain record keeping service.
“For example, a photographer could sell several editions of his work, but does not allow the commercial use of that work. If a t-shirt maker wants to put the photograph on a shirt, he would need to license the work from the photographer. The license function allows for this kind of transaction.”
— – McMullen
Ascribe allows digital artists to sell, loan, and transfer their work. Eventually users will be able to give partial ownership to another person, a 50-50 split for example. The startup also has the grand goal of simplifying global copyrights, which currently can be quite tricky, since the blockchain is a “borderless database.”