Google DNI Event in Amsterdam

On July 6th, Google hosted an event with respect to its DNI Innovation Fund in Amsterdam. On this occasion, the company launched the DNI Innovation Fund Report and provided room to celebrate and showcase learnings from the first two DNI funding rounds.

The program included keynotes from Lydia Polgreen, who shared her experience with change and innovation from her position as editor in chief at Huffpost, as well as from software engineer Annie Chen, who spoke about the genesis of the Gmail feature “Priority Inbox”. In an interview with Madhav Chinnappa, Google’s Director of Strategic Relations, News & Publishers, Jimmy Wales reflected on his learnings from launching Wikipedia, and his new news venture Wikitribune.

Representatives from funded projects – including topics ranging from AI and Data Journalism to Virtual Reality and Blockchain Technology – led breakout sessions to inform the participants about their work. The Content Blockchain Project was among the active participants and our presentation of our approach was met with a lot of interest. Since the audience included many representatives from news publishers from all over Europe, we could improve our understanding of their needs and of the challenges that they are facing. Many questions focused on the feasibility of certain use cases that the participants had in mind, as well as on the potentials and limits of blockchain technology when it comes to the prevention of content piracy.

Here below, you can find some extracts of our presentation at the event:

The Blockchain technology

The blockchain can be understood as a decentralized register that is kept on a large number of computers simultaneously. One essential feature is that anyone who wants can read the data that is written in this register and that everybody can make an entry. In most existing blockchains, entries and transactions (sending money to someone) can be made and verified by the network in only a few minutes and at very low cost.

Some blockchain protocols allow more complex actions than just transferring money. They can actually execute programs with conditions like IF a certain amount of money is paid to my blockchain wallet, THEN the program on the blockchain – which means on every computer that is part of the network – will execute a predefined action, like issuing a certificate to some party, or whatever you can imagine. And it will make the result of the computation visible in the blockchain. These programs are also known as smart contracts. They could – in the context of our project – be used to issue licenses for the use of content upon a certain payment.

Benefits thanks to simplification

Identifiers are crucial for the distribution of content. Books have the ISBN, Journals have the ISSN, academic Papers have DOIs and so forth. But there is no standard identifier for news content and there is a lot of content online without any credentials at all.

We develop a prototype to identify and handle content that is not standardized or readily categorized. This includes a possibility for secondary and tertiary use on the market. The Content Blockchain Project shall enable publishers and customers to sell and resell digital content easier and in new ways.

We build a technical, legal and strategic prototype, that can be applied to different business models. The key is to automate important parts of the distribution process and to create a prototype for rights and license management.

Our prototype also allows the decentralized identification of content & rights holders with a freely accessible app as well as the timestamping of content with a proof of existence that is being registered to the blockchain. The prototype is composed of three building blocks.

The three building blocks

1 – The first element of our prototype are the content identifiers themselves, as well as an easy to use app to generate these IDs. The idea is that anyone shall be able to use that app and to create their own identifiers for content. The identifiers are derived from a basic set of metadata and whatever a file contains as content (text, image, video, audio or mixed media). The identifiers are composed of different layers. Some of them uniquely identify the content, for example an image. They would be different if you would change only a few pixels in that image. Other layers of the identifier are similarity preserving and allow several identifiers to be grouped together. That’s useful for example for different editions of the same content.

2 – The second building block are what we call smart licenses. They consist of rights modules that are inspired by the Creative Commons licenses. There are understandable options in plain text that rights owners can choose for their content before distribution. These options govern what can be done with the content and under what conditions. To do so in a valid way, they will be linked to the “real” license text, that can be displayed with one additional click. So the legalese would be in the backend, but it would be always there. We are currently developing such rights modules for specific use cases.

3 – Both, the content identifiers and the corresponding licenses are useful by themselves, but the big benefit comes from publishing both together to a blockchain. This action is incorporated in the third building block of our project. We develop an exemplary transaction model of how the identifiers and licenses can be registered and traded on a blockchain, ideally with very little effort on the side of the users. We are currently exploring whether for the trading of licenses, it is better to use license-tokens that are traded like a currency on the blockchain, or smart contracts that would grant licenses upon payment.

The strategy: open development

Our project is an open source project.

We chose to work with blockchain technology, because it provides a decentralized, open and accessible infrastructure. This is very useful to gain traction for the use of our identifier, and for the proliferation of license information in a place that can easily be found and accessed by anyone. Using a public blockchain protocol also allows for interoperability of our trading models with third party apps. We can share ideas and innovations that read and write on the same blockchain.

We already reviewed different blockchains and their respective ecosystems and capacities with regards to our project. One of the main issues here is keeping transaction costs low. You can find the evaluations on our website.

The impact

Since we are working on an open infrastructure, the impact of our project really grows with the people that use it. Our prototype enables a number of benefits and business models.

There is the possibility to find license information by reading the public blockchain register, or to render one’s current content distribution more efficient. It also becomes easier to manage content internally. Or to track the success of individual news items based on the transactions with regard to that item.

In addition to that, we think that with the simplification of content trading, many new actors will be able to put their content on offer or to generate innovative business models with the content of others.

And finally, the use of a blockchain comes with the options to resell content after reception and to capture value from secondary and tertiary usage licenses. This opens up new revenue streams for digital media.

The next steps

We are busy building an app for the creation of identifiers for text files at the moment. ID-creation functionalities for other formats such as images will be developed in the following months.

At the same time, we keep working on rights modules for the initial prototype and on finding the right balance between simplicity and usability on the one hand, and usefulness and a high operability on the other hand.

The trading model will build on top of these two elements and it will depend on the specific use cases that it shall enable. In this regard, we are always open for input and new cooperations!

We currently do a lot of preparations in order to use the blockchain as an infrastructure for many exciting opportunities in publishing. We are ready to take the next steps, and we are happy about everyone who is motivated to work with us!