Microsoft Looks to the Ethereum Blockchain to Fight Piracy

Ever since blockchain technology came onto the scene, some have been trying to find a way to find a way to use it to help with copyright and intellectual property issues.

However, as we discussed back in April, blockchain is really a solution looking for a problem when it comes to copyright. In short, the issues that copyright holders face day-to-day can’t be solved by blockchain and the issues that blockchain can solve are better solved through other means already.

But that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to find ways to use blockchain to address copyright issues and, according to a recent paper released by their research team, Microsoft may have found one.

According to MIcrosoft, they’ve found ways to use the Ethereum blockchain as a means to both incentivize the reporting of piracy while protecting the anonymity of such informers. They hope that, if this system is implemented, it will help encourage more people to come forward and report piracy that they see.

While it’s far too early to know if this approach will work, or even see the light of day, it’s still a very intriguing idea and one that is well worth discussing.

Solving the Informer Problem

Diagram from the Paper

The problem that Microsoft is attempting to solve is one that has plagued piracy reporting for quite some time.

Basically, most large companies offer anonymous ways that users can report piracy. They also offer incentives, usually financial, for reporting piracy of their content, especially by a business.

However, anonymity and financial incentive are often mutually exclusive. Under the current system, it is difficult to reward someone and keep them anonymous.

This is where Microsoft’s proposal steps in. Using a system they named Argus, someone in the “Open Population” can gather evidence of piracy and submit it anonymously using the Ethereum blockchain. That information, when combined with evidence provided by the owner, is then used to address the piracy and, if deserved, a reward is provided.

It is possible for the entire process to take place with the owner never knowing who submitted the original report and, as an added bonus, the entire process is transparent. Other users will be able to see that payment take place, but not know to whom it went or even what information specifically was provided.

The system has a series of safeguards that ensure the same user cannot submit the same evidence/report multiple times, and that only the user can report the same watermarked copy. Microsoft has also used several “cryptographic operations” to reduce the cost of piracy reporting from potentially thousands of transactions to just 14.

However, that may still be a bit steep for some, as the average cost of an Ethereum transfer is hovering around $15 as of this writing.

Still, the approach is an interesting one and Microsoft clearly overcame numerous challenges to make this system work.

However, as interesting as the research is, it’s still very unlikely to achieve its stated goal. After all, the biggest limitation to users reporting piracy isn’t anonymity, but simply not caring. Even with the rewards offered, few report authentic cases of piracy and even fewer of those are acted upon.

Still, that doesn’t make this solution interesting.

Not a Copyright Problem/Solution

While it’s very interesting to see blockchain technology find a potential niche in protecting copyright, this really isn’t a problem that’s unique to copyright or piracy. The issue of maintaining anonymity while rewarding informers covers many areas of law, including both criminal and civil issues.

Theoretically, Microsoft’s approach could be applied to many other issues of varying levels of severity. That said, piracy is likely the low-hanging fruit because it’s the one where the person receiving the report can best provide additional evidence.

This is also a use of blockchain that plays to the technology’s greatest strength: Transparent, secure recording of anonymous transactions.

But that’s ultimately what makes this solution different. It wasn’t enthusiasts of cryptocurrency or blockchain technologies trying to find a way to apply those tools to copyright. Instead, this was a major rightsholder finding a way to apply blockchain to a very specific problem that they have.

It won’t help smaller rightsholders that lack the resources to incentivize or even pursue reports of piracy, and it won’t be a game changer for copyright as a whole, but it may help address a niche problem that companies like Microsoft have and have struggled to deal with.

Bottom Line

Right now, the process is a research paper and little more. It’s unclear if it will ever be implemented and, if it is, if it will actually incentivize piracy reporting. The most likely outcome is that this process will ultimately go nowhere and do nothing, just like much of tech research.

That said, it still represents a small turn of events for the relationship between copyright and blockchain. No, blockchain isn’t going to solve the major problems of copyright nor is it going to be a panacea for licensing or infringement, but it may help address some issues.

However, those solutions aren’t going to be found by blockchain researchers looking to force their technology to be a solution to a problem it isn’t right for. As well as most blockchain enthusiasts understand the technology, they don’t understand the challenges they are trying to make it address.

What has to happen, and what has happened in this case, is that creators need to better understand the technology and find ways it may help them. Those ways will likely be small and dealing with edge cases, but it is still something.

If a tool is useful, creators will find a way to use it. Even if it’s not the use case that the technology’s advocates originally pitched or hoped for.

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