Although promising to explore “Publishing Applications of Blockchain Technology,’ the panel, organized by the Book Industry Study Group, actually provided a critical examination of the promise as well as the reality of a much-hyped but barely understood technological innovation.

The panel, held November 8 in New York City, was moderated by Fortune business and technology reporter Jeff John Roberts. The panelists navigated a range of issues surrounding blockchain, a foundational technology supporting the functionality of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, and the potential the technology holds for a variety of industries and applications.

But like most discussions of blockchain, even describing what the technology is takes some effort.

Roberts warily described blockchain as “software on multiple computers that can vouch for the transactions made on each one across the network,” before quickly turning to the panel for validation. Panelist Jarrod Dicker, CEO of, a blockchain driven platform that records ownership of digital content, supported the definition, but expanded on it by noting that the blockchain is also an “immutable distributed ledger that can’t be manipulated.”

Indeed panelists explained that blockchain technology has the potential to address many issues that publishers grapple with, such as digital piracy, while also transforming some of the most inefficient parts of the business, such as subsidiary rights or an idle backlist.

Panelist Kirsten Sandberg, editor in chief of the Blockchain Research Institute, described the potential for “smart contracts,” which are essentially autonomous online bots with encoded rights data released on a blockchain network that can “promote and sell themselves online like an ad.”

Another panelist, Stephen Williams, author of The Next Everything: A Short Guide to Blockchain, described the potential for self-publishing opportunities for both emerging and bestselling authors. “Writers need to be involved in blockchain, it empowers creators in ways unforeseen.”

But panelists such as Dicker and Rana DiOrio, CEO of Creative Mint, a blockchain driven brand marketplace, acknowledged that blockchain is a foundational infrastructure, a digital base upon which applications can be built that will serve industries or consumers--eventually.

The panelists also acknowledged the problems surrounding blockchain. To take advantage of the technology, every player in an industry needs to be a party to the network and make use of cryptocurrencies. And for publishing, getting major trade publishers to put rights data for tens of thousands of titles (or even the actual content of the books) on a blockchain network will be a daunting task.

Sandberg even questioned blockchain’s vaunted immutability, noting that quantum computing, a next generation computing technology, has the ability to crack current blockchain security. And, they acknowledged, all of this is a tall order for a barely understood technology with a small exposure to, or even access by, consumers.

DiOrio noted that BISG “may be the solution to this problem [in the publishing business]. They touch all the players.” And BISG executive director Brian O’Leary agreed. O’Leary noted that blockchain has the potential to help publishers “expose all of their idle assets and generate value. This is an opportunity to explore possible solutions,” he said, adding, “some of which might not work.”

Correction: The name of Rana DiOrio's company was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.