The music, video, and book industries have had metadata problems in common for years. The book industry is actually ahead of the other two in dealing with the issue, in the sense that we’ve developed and maintained the Onix standard, and trading partners (by and large) have agreed to use it. Though music has DDEX and video has EIDR, they haven’t had to deal with third-party trading partners until fairly recently and haven’t implemented metadata standards on a universal scale the way the book industry has.
So the music and video metadata geeks have looked to the book industry as a model for metadata standards. But now a technology has evolved that the music industry is closely examining—which means it’s time for other media industries to evaluate it as well. That technology is blockchain.
Blockchain is a way of tracking ownership and rights. It was invented by an anonymous person (or persons) going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. This in itself is enough to give one pause about considering adopting blockchain. Provenance, when it comes to rights and ownership, is fundamental. Even when the author is anonymous to the public, the publisher needs to pay that person.
So far, the most well-known implementation of blockchain technology is in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Blockchain operates on a peer-to-peer basis much like Google Docs does. There is no centralized authority; transactions are appended to the blockchain ledger, and anyone with access to that ledger (currently, those who have made the transactions) can see it. Six times per hour, a new “block” of transactions is added to the ledger. The computers with access to the blockchain network verify and manage all the transactions.
For streaming media, the implications are huge. Because streaming happens over digital networks, the notion of a digitally native, transparent system for keeping records of transactions is quite attractive. The creator or publisher would put the product up for sale, and the end user would download a particular copy and pay for it on the blockchain network. E-books, audiobooks, music, video, and games would benefit from a system in which there can be no question who originated content and who’s paying for access to it. Piracy would be hamstrung.
This is why the music industry, which was the first industry to be seriously affected by digital piracy, has been so attracted to blockchain technology. With digital access comes the possibility of piracy, but the transparency of blockchain virtually ensures that piracy is not possible within the blockchain network because the distributor sees who is accessing and paying for the content—provided that network is not forked into different versions that are not communicating with one another.
But—as with any technology—there are drawbacks. As I just mentioned, blockchain makes piracy extremely difficult, but, like any system, it’s vulnerable to hacking and bad actors. A rule of thumb that I like to go by is: if a system exists, humans will try to hack it. The transparency aspect of blockchain can be compromised, and piracy becomes possible. The response to this drawback is that piracy is itself a hack—bad actors are going to act badly and breach any system intended to protect rights and royalties.
The second issue is the anonymous provenance of the technology. Nobody knows who Nakamoto is, or how many individuals that name represents. When a company or industry is thinking about using an untested system, it is important to know who developed that system if something goes wrong.
A third drawback is the environmental aspect. As blockchain technology scales, it requires more servers. To move, however gradually, onto a distributed network for financial technologies for financial infrastructure requires massive CPU power. And servers, as we know, generate heat. Server farms require a heretofore unprecedented amount of air conditioning, contributing mightily to climate change. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has taken note of this issue in an article lamenting the “ridiculous amount of energy it takes to run Bitcoin” and the likelihood of that energy use going unchecked in the near term. That said, Intel and Cornell University are working on various options, such as Ethereum and Sawtooth, that would reduce the amount of participants in the blockchain, thus lowering CPU use and the potential for hacking.
The final issue is the power of the legal system. Any time an organization has attempted to standardize the transmission of rights, it has been met with pushback from lawyers. This is true across industries. Yes, there are contract templates—but the relationship between agents and talent means that rights are still a bespoke industry.
So the technology isn’t fully stable for industry just yet. I don’t think the book industry will be adopting this anytime soon. But it’s worth paying attention to. It’s incumbent on those working in publishing to watch their sister industries and how they adapt to digital change. They’ve been affected by it far more than publishing has, and we can learn from their experience.
Laura Dawson, CEO of Numerical Gurus, is a book supply chain consultant. She also facilitates Metadata Boot Camp, a webinar series tackling metadata issues in publishing.