I recently learned that CC France is experimenting with Ascribe, a tool for registering authorship of digital works, based on the “blockchain” technology behind BitCoin. In a post on the CC blog, Primavera De Filippi of CC France wrote:

“Creative Commons revolutionized online artistic practices via licenses that promote attribution, free reproduction and dissemination of content, rather than focusing on scarcity and exclusivity… Ascribe started in 2014 to help creators secure their intellectual property, with the help of the blockchain. It works with any type of licenses, including the Creative Commons licenses.”

Not everyone is excited by “free reproduction and dissemination” though. As quoted in an article by Mario Cotillard entitled ‘Ascribe Is Giving Away Artwork Recorded In Bitcoin’s Blockchain‘:

“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.”

It makes me sad to see smart people like Schmidt celebrating creative energy being wasted trying to make naturally abundant things scarcer, so they gain value in an economy designed around scarcity. Surely everyone would be better off if we can find ways to reward people for creating the abundance that’s clearly possible? Watching what Ascribe is doing is like watching a company chop down half the trees in a National Park in a farcical attempt to increase the revenue from visitors to the park. The so-called “law of supply and demand” is a rule of thumb, not a law of physics, and as my example hopefully demonstrates, it just doesn’t apply to the commons.

Ascribe is a part of an explosion of innovation launched by the success of BitCoin, and I don’t want to totally write it off. A tool for identifying the original author of a creative or informative work surely has its uses (although such a tool already exists, it’s called a book, or a record, or a signed painting), and using Ascribe in conjunction with CC licenses, and the Creator-Endorsed Mark, could be useful to free culture authors, artists, musicians, and film-makers.

However, some of Ascribe’s business goals, as described in various commentaries on the web, sound thoroughly sinister. Yet another wave of tools for DRM:

“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.” - Mario Cottilard, BraveNewCoin

…and surveillance:

“Ascribe’s blockchain-based technology can trace the journey of any registered file to track its distribution — giving rights holders a way to prove their ownership and a better chance of prosecuting anyone who may have stolen their work.” - Abhimanyu Ghoshal, TheNextWeb

Is this really the kind of organisation CreativeCommons affiliates should be partnering with?

Filed October 21st, 2015 under Uncategorized
  1. Hi Strypey,

    I’m ascribe’s Chief Policy Officer. Someone linked me to this story today. I wish you came to us before posting. The quotes from the articles you link to are directly opposed to our vision, and they don’t speak for us! Here are a few corrections:

    1. ascribe isn’t DRM.

    We hate DRM. We know it doesn’t work, we know it restricts free expression, and we know it hurts users (and especially users with disabilities). So we decided to do the opposite. We like to quote Amanda Palmer here: “COPY COPY COPY COPY”. When you register or transfer a work on ascribe, it’s not locked, watermarked, or restricted in any way. Registration is just asserting a rights claim to the content of a file with a particular hash.

    2. ascribe isn’t surveillance or about “prosecuting” people.

    We don’t work with copyright trolls - never have, never will. We give creators visibility into the use of their work. When creators put things online, they feel like they lose control over it. They can’t see how it’s been used or who has used it. In a digital world or attention economy, that knowledge is critical. Creators want to see how much influence their work has had (is it blowing up on Tumblr but without attribution?) or what use is being made of it (were there any cool remixes?). Many public institutions like museums are funded on the basis of the number of visitors or users they have, but they are left guessing as to the impact of their digital work. Without visibility and attribution, everyone loses. Our tools aim to provide visibility into the spread of a work. You can try it out for yourself if you want. Our machine learning similarity search tool is at whereonthe.net and it’s free to anyone.

    3. ascribe isn’t chopping down the Commons or trying to eliminate free culture.

    I love CC. I’ve been licensing my photos on Flickr under a CC license for over a decade now, and I was delighted to attend the CC Global Summit in Seoul this year. So when I say “I love CC”, I mean it. ascribe’s limited editions of works aren’t meant to stop sharing. They are aimed at artists and the collectors who pay for their work. The way the art world was dealing with digital art wasn’t making sense - artists selling purely digital pieces sealed in a physical DVD player or a limited edition USB key, just so the collector has something physical to hold on to. ascribe’s limited editions aim to change this. Rather than selling work in a sealed DVD player or flatscreen art display device, ascribe lets art live digitally but still have a collectable uniqueness. It lets digital art be special. People have made some really exciting uses we hadn’t thought of, too - a hackathon we hosted saw one team develop “fractional ownership” of one piece of art represented by editions and custom contracts. But no matter the use, the file itself is still unrestricted, but the collector knows they’re buying something that has a unique connection with the artist.

    Comment by gregascribe on January 28, 2016 at 5:44 am

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