Ascribe Wants To Build ‘The Ownership Layer Of The Internet’

Human beings often like to own things. As a species, we aren't very good at sharing. We've largely built our society around owning what we make, and being able to profit from selling it. As a result commerce and sharing have always been in conflict with each other, and the internet is no different.

Since computers were first networked, and now that everyone who can click 'Save' has the power to share digital data that is exactly as real as the original, we've been at odds with our selfish nature. We’ve become accustomed to sharing our online data, anyone who can see it can have their own exact duplicate. As you would expect, this has been causing some problems.

Image Hashing attempts to tackle this problem for online pictures. TinEye.com allows you to upload an image and find many of its occurrences on the internet. like google, it has a web crawler that crawls through web pages and looks for images. It then hashes these images, then stores the hash with the url in a database. When you upload an image, it simply calculates the hash and retrieves all the urls linking to that hash.

Times have changed, and now we have the blockchain to store any number of hashes in a decentralized database. We can use it against sharing data when we don't want to, or at least use it against other people taking credit away from the originator. With this powerful tool, love it or hate it, data can now be scarce, timestamped and claimed.

- Ascribe

There are many ways to claim your digits on the blockchain. In February, we highlighted three great services that do the job for free, or at minimal cost. We have seen others pop up since, with various features and levels of user-friendliness.

Today you can be as selfish or selfless as you want with your data, and unlike physical items, you can prove that you are the originator and owner of some particular data while at the same time let it spread out freely from person to person with unlimited copies. It's cheap and easy, but few people know that they have this option, and even fewer feel safe enough about the process to rely on it for proving ownership of their most important data.

One industry, where this is likely to change in soon, is the broad and diverse world of art. Thanks to a custom tailored approach by the German startup Ascribe, art lovers around the world now have exciting new options that were previously unavailable because of our hardships with digital sharing.

Until recently, selling digital artwork has been restricted to tiny markets where the effortless counterfeiting problem of the digital medium is constantly threatening business models. Stock photography is one of the largest sub-industries of digital artwork, but only because the price of it is so low that risking theft is a worthwhile business model.

The leading stock photo shop iStock sells their photographs for between $1 and $10 each, and 500px, known for their high-quality digital artwork on sale, sells for marginally more, up to $50 per high-quality, high-definition painting or photograph.

Despite these seemingly the low prices, it would seem that some art lovers are willing to pay well for digital pieces, and the fledgling industry continues to grow. The Hiscox 2015 Art Trade Report polled its industry and found that 12% of respondents bought digital art and video online.

- Hiscox 2015 Art Trade Report

Before the blockchain, selling purely digital art was made possible by manual methods and trust; Lawyers prepared contracts to certify ownership and authenticity of a digital file, and even then it was pretty impossible to prove the originator of a piece of artwork without having other people vouch for the artists. The result is a system where the more expensive your art is, the more you have to price in lawyers fees and other means of proving ownership of your product.

This bureaucracy-choked paper trail is called the 'provenance,' and it typically includes a low-resolution photo of the artwork, contracts, notary-timestamped certifications proving ownership, and a range of other relevant documentation.

None of this is necessary with Ascribe's service. Their provenance is simply a hash of the artwork itself on the Bitcoin blockchain. They add in a suite of complimentary services like storage of the document for backup and automatic updating of file formats.

- Ascribe

Their free service, for now at least, behind Ascribe works in the same way as a timestamp service like Origin Stamp, but can include a lot of detail about the provenance and is tailored to a point where expensive art dealers and buyers don't have to be bothered with the technical aspects. With one upload, everything is done for them and has a solid, museum-quality feel to it, down to creating a pretty PDF document of the final product & proof.

They help you transfer the title of any artwork, even loan it out, share it through their own email client, and you can even set a particular number of prints that each have their own cryptographic signature.

- Ascribe

Interestingly, Ascribe is working on a way to actively look for stolen customers' property online too. This extra level of service has not been proposed by any of the competing timestamp service.

“You have the power to act when you know where your work is and how it's being used. So, we crawl the internet to identify where the registered works show up (in beta, just ask). We use machine learning at scale to identify works even if they've been altered. Title and visibility are two sides of the ownership coin.” -Ascribe website

Their contribution to artists is second to none, but one of the most promising parts about Ascribe's offering is that they are attempting to take the service beyond art, ensuring that this service can be useful for any kind of document.

- Ascribe

Considering that they are the only service so far to make digital timestamping so user-friendly and come with so many options, the greater business world could find it much easier to adapt to blockchain-based services. Looking further out, it may even play a part in redefining what file ownership means.

- Ascribe