Pledge Music’s CEO Benji Rogers wrote a blog post that has been doing the rounds recently. It’s called How the Blockchain and VR Can Change the Music Industry. It’s worth a read – and particularly since many of the people commenting on it seem to have only read the headline.

I’ve had some interesting conversations about it since I mentioned it online yesterday (after a half-hour Skype chat with Benji), and the usual concerns come up. Someone compared it to a return to the bad old days of the Sony rootkit debacle (which was about technical copy protection and not about rights in any meaningful sense) – and of course, it brings up the usual ‘philosophical’ discussions between copyright maximalists and copyright abolitionists (I’m neither).

The Manifesto for the Future of Music Technology Research guides us here:

“Ask of any music technology: For whom will this make things better? How? Is it open or closed to creativity and innovation it has not yet anticipated?”

and…

“We call for technologies to be created with an eye for the long-term. Musical objects should last as long as the materials out of which they are made or they should be modular, recyclable, or transformable. They should be forward-compatible whenever possible. Data must be portable and not bound to a particular company or platform. At the same time, standards must not become coercive. Music is not standard. We must cultivate the freedom to build and use nonstandard tools.”

That’s my starting point. Here’s Benji’s:

“…the music industry on the whole is in turmoil and has halved in size financially in the last 15 years even as consumption and demand skyrocket. An industry that has made poor to no use of its most valuable and actionable data. An industry that when faced with a new technology, has historically been more likely to run from than embrace it.”

The recording industry is plagued with bad metadata and this is a major problem for music in the digital age – and particularly for artists and rightsholders being fairly compensated for uses of their work. So Benji’s idea, in a nutshell, is that using Blockchain technology (and the onset of Virtual Reality as an emergent platform in search of standards that can be used as a Trojan Horse for widespread adoption) it’s possible to create a digital file format that carries the necessary ‘minimum viable metadata’ for a piece of music that allows the creators of that work to be paid correctly and fairly in the proportions that have been agreed. The rights are built into the file. Using that music in a way that should generate revenue for the rightsholder (streaming or licensing for use in a video, for instance) will ensure that revenue is correctly apportioned.

In other words, establishing a blockchain codec (a .bc file format) that includes the necessary rights information – and having that as the basis of making music available on emergent platforms – is the way forward in terms of a technological solution to a data management problem. It makes the rights transparent and the apportioning of revenues automatic.

Now, I don’t agree with Benji 100%, but I do agree with him around 75% – which is exactly why I’m interested in getting involved in the project. Transparency and correct apportioning of revenues is at least as big a problem for artists and creators as infringing uses. Almost certainly much bigger. So having a hand in the creation of the .bc format for music would be the best way to try and shape how it works so that it genuinely meets its goal of being ‘fair trade’ – because right now, it wouldn’t be. At least, not for everyone.

For understandable reasons, this proposal only considers commercially-released music and so creates a system that would exclude anything outside of that. In fact, most music is not commercially released music – and platforms need to allow for human expression that is not purely for commercial gain. Locking out anything that doesn’t have commercial ownership metadata is counterproductive. The world is not neatly divided into creators and audiences.

Songwriters and publishers of commercially-released recordings are considered here to be the “owners” of music – which is fine of course in many important senses, but this doesn’t factor in any ownership rights that might be accorded to the people who may have actually bought it. Most things I buy become mine. In this model, if I buy a song, that copy of the song is not mine to do with as I please. Are there likely to be non-commercial uses that might be authorised that are fundamentally indistinguishable from unauthorised commercial uses as far as the rights tracking algorithm is concerned? Almost certainly.

In other words, this is conceived as a (streaming-based) rental model where payments are by use – and prevents the establishment of a model where a piece of music can be purchased outright and then subsequent plays are ‘free’ (as with records and CDs, for instance). It also seems to have completely ruled out the idea that any transformative works might also be tacitly authorised by the creator under certain circumstances (for instance, DJ sets or fan remixes may actually be welcomed) and defaults to an ‘all rights reserved’ model rather than a far more flexible ‘some rights reserved’ option. Not everybody insists on asserting their rights in all circumstances in a uniform manner – and not all practices or intentions should be assumed of all creators equally. Blanket application of copyright law is an electric-age solution that creates more than its fair share of problems – and we have the opportunity to solve those here.

Because this proposal insists on Technical Protection Measures that prevent anything that doesn’t stand up to the Minimum Viable Data ‘fair trade’ criteria needed to be encoded in the .bc format, a massive amount of music becomes entirely unplayable – whether it’s authorised or not. For everything that gets to participate, this is closer to fair trade than what we have now. But much is excluded – and not just the stuff that is wilfully infringing.

So as it stands, this is a mostly good system with good intentions, but that is broken because it doesn’t acknowledge complexity, and doesn’t properly recognise music’s cultural value outside of its commercial value. The methodology is fundamentally correct (and the simplicity of the minimum viable metadata and solution of the Day Zero problem is entirely smart) – but the failsafes that have been built in to protect artists and creators entirely break it for culture and society.

As the proposal stands now, this isn’t fair trade but protectionism.

But this same system with fairly minor tweaks and amendments could be employed to make things that track all of the plays and make all the correct payments for all the people he’s worried about (and rightly so), and also be genuinely reforming in a positive way for society in the area of copyright.

Because you don’t only need to change the way in which rights are tracked and enforced, you need to go back to first principles and question what those rights should be and how copyright should now work in the interests of artists, creators, audiences, institutions, culture and society at large. All of those things, not just some of them. Now we have the capacity to build a system that implements the agreed policy, we need to agree the policy. This is not just the moment for technological reform but also for policy reform. The two need to go hand in hand.

For instance, you could build in an opt-in rights roll-over extension period for works that are active, and ensure that works that do not opt in will default to public domain after a shorter period than currently exists, because you know that the parties involved have been contacted and notified – and have been given the option to extend if they wish. See my 2008 article in which I argue that the term of copyright should be 5 years, but indefinitely extendable. Benji’s proposed system makes my thought experiment possible. The technology makes the policy proposal implementable.

The blockchain codec, if designed somewhat differently and with the right kind of brains working on the problem (I have a few in mind), could both ensure fair payments for rights holders and at the same time succeed in contributing more works to the public domain than at any time in history. The great thing about it is the fact that the codec will itself contain the necessary information to ensure that composers are fairly and accurately rewarded for public performance, broadcast, sync in games, videos and immersive media experiences. As long as it’s not about tracking the user and instead about ensuring that only those tracks that are fairly used can be used for these kinds of products by media companies, then I think we’re onto something incredibly significant.

It could also ultimately solve the hopelessly complex metadata problem for record labels, fix the outmoded sample-based ‘best guess’ approach taken by Performing Rights Societies by exactly tracking plays across all broadcast media and in public venues, and even allow composers to change their mind about the rights they wish to assert and those they wish to waive in the interests of fan engagement. This, in concert with fundamental copyright reform, could ultimately make things better for musicians and record labels as well as for archivists, scholars and amateur music producers – not to mention to society at large.

The number and nature of music industry people who have been enthusiastic about this proposal should both raise a red flag and be interpreted as very encouraging. This has the potential to be a site of resolution between two sides that have somewhat contradictory notions of what ‘fair’ would mean in a fair trade music economy.

If implemented as is (and without change to law), this proposal would be problematic to say the least. But it’s 75% of a great idea, it’s definitely getting there and heading in the right direction. The last 25% needs some thinking… but I genuinely believe this is absolutely worth working on.

It needs software engineers, cryptographers, musicians, hackers, VR developers and others to all get involved. I can think of a good platform for that sort of experimental development. This is one of those things that if it affects you, or you have some strong (and preferably informed) opinions about it, then it’s probably something you want to be involved in while it’s being created, rather than have it be something that happens to you.