Stakeholders consider potential for blockchain ledger as it nears completion

With the new year fast approaching, artists can look forward to the completion of an attribution ledger to protect their work.

The Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) and Access Copyright are developing a blockchain system where artists can register their work and protect it from copyright infringement. The blockchain will assist in the tracing and tracking of visual works, but has the potential to do even more — like link to royalty payment services.

“People are excited and nervous about the possibilities,” said April Britski, the national executive director of CARFAC.

Roanie Levy, president and chief executive officer of Access Copyright, a Canadian non-profit copyright collective, said artists are excited about blockchain’s potential to assist in provenance, the trace and tracking of visual works. Levy said Access Copyright is working with visual artists and running the development of the blockchain, while CARFAC will be the administrator of the service and do the necessary work to attribute visual artists and visual work.

Britski said CARFAC’s role is “ensuring [the blockchain] does what artists need it do,” meaning that it’s being developed with artists’ copyright interests in mind, that its user interface is something artists find workable, and to promote it once it’s available in 2020.

But, Bristki said many people don’t understand how blockchain might apply to the art market and visual arts world because there are so few projects “up and running.” As well, she said many people struggle to understand how blockchain technology works, which is why CARFAC has been developing education materials to make it the technology relatable.

Blockchain is a shared database protected by cryptography, a method used to secure information through coding. Individual records are grouped together into blocks and the blocks are linked together in a chain. When an artist registers a creation on the blockchain, the work receives a unique identifier, essentially a digital fingerprint, that contains data about the work, such as the artist and copyright holder which will ensure the rightful owner is being credited for their work.

Levy said the blockchain should be completed within a “matter of weeks,” at which time it will be tested by a select group of creators. Following this first phase, the blockchain also has potential to be linked with royalty payment and licensing services to ensure payments go to the rightful owners.

Bristki said the Copyright Agency in Australia is studying blockchain’s potential to be used to track Artist’s Resale Rights — fees that goes to an artist each time their work is resold.

“Obviously, we’re very excited to see what kind of potential that can hold,” Britski said.

CARFAC has long advocated for an Artist Resale Right of five per cent each time a work is resold. According to its website, the full value of an artwork often isn’t seen on the first sale but rather increases in value over time as the reputation of the artist grows.

Last year, Britski testified to the Parliamentary committee on Industry on the benefits are resale rights, amid the committee’s review of the Copyright Act. In the final review, the committee ultimately recommended that the federal government “explore” the cost and benefits of implementing artist’s resale right with stakeholders and report to the committee on the matter within three years. The committee requested a government response on the study, but has yet to receive one as the government’s business was held-up during an election period.

Bristki said CARFAC is eager to meet with new the Heritage and Industry committees to determine the next steps on the recommendations that came out of their respective reviews.

While the first portion of the blockchain project was funded through a Canada Council grant of $495,000, Britski said the organizations are now considering business models to fund future operating costs. She said the last government, a Liberal majority which has since been reduced to a minority, supported the development of digital technologies.

“I imagine it’ll be the same in the future,” she added.

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