The building blocks that we are creating in the Content Blockchain Project are designed to help everyone in the digital content ecosystem to discover and try new ways to manage digital content distribution, think of innovative business models and increase efficiency in the administration of digital content and use rights.
The fast-paced world of news media is an especially relevant environment in this context. Until now, there is no standard identifier for news content and the proliferation of news usually happens so quickly that a scalable and automated solution is the only reliable way to keep track of one’s content.
In order to make sure that we are going into the right direction while developing our ideas and tools to create an environment of decentralized identifiers and simple licensing information on a blockchain, we met with different stakeholders from the digital news sector on several occasions. We are notably exchanging thoughts with our partners dpa, Golem.de, Zeit Online and the Online Media Verlag.
It is very important for us to understand the requirements and constraints of different stakeholders within the realm of online news and to adapt our prototype so that we would always work towards a flexible and sustainable model. If we want to use blockchain technology as an infrastructure for digital news in the near future, we need to conceive an environment that incorporates the needs of the stakeholders while remaining easy to overlook and open to new participants.
Based on the different interests and perspectives that we learned about in the conversations with our partners, we drafted the following summary of partner requirements. While none of the partners had been looking into blockchain technology with respect to their own activity yet, we learned about a number of relevant use cases in which the technology is fit to provide a simple and feasible solution. These cases are outlined in short paragraphs below.
Due to the high speed of content creation, editing and publishing in news media, flexible and efficient means to administer content and to generate and store information like metadata are interesting even for such entities that already have systems in place that deal with content administration.
Furthermore, the idea of having combined and searchable information about content identifiers and licenses was considered very useful. We also heard that it would in some cases be favored to have the option of keeping the rights management confidential.
One of the most obvious use cases of blockchain technology was very much welcomed by our partners: the possibility of smooth and simple timestamping of content. To create a proof of existence for any kind of content, it suffices to generate a unique identifier of the item and to register it to the blockchain.
While this simple procedure may be useful in many contexts, we notably discussed it as a possible antidote against some kinds of fake news (because it would be very easy to verify who first published a given news item) and as a tool to guarantee the integrity of content across time and variations of instances. This use case applies particularly well to instances of high content proliferation and to situations where reporting about a given topic is frequently being updated.
Currently, the verification whether secondary use (the re-publication of one’s licensed content) happens according to previously fixed agreements is costly and cumbersome. As an alternative to spot checks, we met some interest in automated solutions, including web crawling, to learn about legitimate and illegitimate use of digital content.
Thanks to blockchain technology and notably license information on a distributed public register, even tertiary use and other forms of sublicensing are conceivable without too great a risk of losing track of one’s agreements and conditions.
Besides the possibility to enter into – currently too complex – agreements about sublicensing content, the possibility to register transactions of licenses or individual news items on a blockchain also allows to keep track of the popularity of one’s content in a very fine-grained way. This kind of reputation-tracking was deemed very useful by some of our partners, notably because the measuring of the success of any given content provides valuable feedback for future content creation.
With regard to the radical simplification of transaction that blockchain technology makes possible, our partners identified two main opportunities. Firstly, there is a potential to broaden the scope of content that can be offered in an economically sustainable way. With very low cost for transactions and significantly reduced administrative overhead thanks to e.g. smart contracts that self-execute on a blockchain once a payment is made, it becomes easier to offer so-called “long-tail”-content that may be of interest to some groups of readers, but simply didn’t justify its own distribution channel until now.
Secondly, the automation of payment procedures may contribute to the diversification of revenue channels for online media. In addition to revenue from advertisement display, readers who are willing to directly pay for content can be better motivated to so through the option of very easy-to-handle transactions of a cryptocurrency on a blockchain.
One requirement that became clear in the conversation with our partners was the need to avoid competition between instances of the same content in different manifestations in some constellations. For example, the sale of individual articles should not cannibalize the sale of entire editions of a format or enter into competition with subscription models from the same publisher.
Concerning the potential of blockchain technology to jump-start new and innovative business models, our partners were especially interested in new means of interaction with the news consumers. Since blockchain transactions can by definition always be traced back to the origin, there are many opportunities to reference not only an initial instance of a given content, but conceivably also updated editions of articles that may include comments or questions from readers.
Blockchain technology also has a great potential to satisfy new demands in content consumption and trade, like for instance the possibility to resell content among end users (and to attribute a share of the resale-price to the rights holder of the content).
In our communication with the partners, we met a high degree of awareness for requirements related to the protection of the privacy of news consumers. Distributed and public ledgers like blockchains easily evoke the idea that the news consumption habits of individual readers can be tracked through their crypto-wallets. It became clear that our partners wish to prevent such scenarios and to be able to offer their content in ways that permit anonymous news reception.
In addition to the specific use cases and benefits outlined above, our partners also shared some pieces of information about their needs on a procedural level. This dimension is very important for us in order to be able to develop something that is actually useful with regard to the daily processes in newsrooms and other entities.
Firstly, our partners expressed that the prototype of our identifier should be fit to incorporate content that consists of several interconnected elements into individual and unique IDs. This is especially important for typical multimedia content, like for instance a report comprising bits of text, images and video. An additional requirement in this respect was a useful solution to manage so-called parent-child relationships between different content items (like for instance between an article and corresponding illustrations that also have unique identifiers on their own).
Secondly, we met some interest in a simple but workable solution to migrate content between different forms of presentation (for example in a print-layout, in a design that was optimized for smartphone apps and as a web browser version) while preserving a stable identifier for the changing digital item.
One side-effect of an environment in which content can be registered and traded on a publicly accessible blockchain via their unique identifiers would be the possibility for anybody – both natural persons and companies – to curate their own news-mix without having to rely on intermediaries. Consequently, central gatekeepers between news publishers and readers would lose bargaining power. This could provide more independence to both publishers of news media and their consumers.
One benefit that was observed by one of our partners consists in the possibility to establish simple sets of rules on a blockchain, not only for content licensing but also concerning the governance of access to content databases for potential business partners that want or need to access a publisher’s content in order to innovate. While partnerships with freshly founded startups can be very time consuming, a predefined set of conditions that clearly stipulate what can be done with the content under what conditions can be registered to a blockchain in a machine-readable format or even be incorporated into a smart contract. This is likely to eliminate a considerable part of the effort and would allow cooperations to be entered into more easily, since a part of the administrative burden is reduced on the side of the publisher who provides the content. New media startups on the other hand would benefit from clear and reliable conditions that facilitate their early planning.
This documentation of the interests, needs and requirements of stakeholders from the news media community concerning the registration of content identifiers and license rights on distributed ledgers is open for updates. Are you part of the news media ecosystem? Please feel invited to share your ideas and needs with us!