The Future of Photo Copyrights: Blockchain?

Photo courtesy of YouPic. Credit Wesley Overklift

Photo courtesy of YouPic. Credit Wesley Overklift

By now nearly everyone has heard of Bitcoin and other "blockchain" based cryptocurrencies.  (If you haven't, then you can read a super-simplified explanation of Bitcoin here.)

But blockchains are potentially useful for far more than just financial ledgers.  

This week, the photography portfolio site YouPic announced a new, blockchain-based initiative for tracking photo copyrights and ensuring that photographers get paid when their photos are used.

You can read their Press Release here. (Their non-native English is a little awkward, but the basic point comes through).

At a time when Bitcoin mania has reached fever-pitch, and when "blockchain enabled" everything is the buzzword of the day, I'm always skeptical of any newly announced blockchain application. (It's like adding "dot-com" to something in 1999, or saying "It's the Uber of X" in 2015.)

But YouPic's proposed copyright system actually seems like a good idea.

Of course, I have no idea whether YouPic will actually succeed in making a blockchain-based copyright system, and if they do, whether their system will become widely used.

However, I think it's almost inevitable that someone will create such a system, and that it may come to supplement, or even replace, the current marketplace for stock photo sales.

Consider some possible advantages of a blockchain-based copyright system for photos:

  • The photos themselves would have their copyright information embedded invisibly in an unalterable, unforgeable format.  No more cropping off the photographer's watermark and claiming ignorance of copyright.

  • This system could automate, or perhaps replace, the current clunky system in which photographers must register their photos with the national copyright office if they want the maximum legal protection.

  • Photographers could embed price structures and even payment mechanisms into the invisible photo metadata.

  • Middleman fees for stock photo sites could be reduced or eliminated in favor of decentralized photo exchanges that allow buyers to purchase directly from photographers — in fully automated transactions, based on the embedded price data, with no human oversight needed.  Payment would simply appear in the photographer's cryptocurrency account when a photo is used.

  • The embedded pricing structures could be far more complex than the standard fixed-price stock-photo schemes we see today.  For example, a photo could be used in a website in a way that automatically counts the number of views and pays the photographer on a per-viewer basis.

  • Copyright bots would automatically search the web for unauthorized use of copyrighted photos, and report any infringing use to the photo's owner.

  • Conceivably, a copyright infringer could even be charged automatically — via a cryptocurrency transaction — for improper use without the photographer even having to take any action.

These are just a few blue-sky thoughts off the top of my head, but I think you can see that there is huge potential for a fully-automated, trustless, decentralized, incorruptible system for tracking photo copyrights.

Someone will probably make this happen within the next few years.   There are similar efforts underway to protect other kinds of creative content, and perhaps one of those will grow to include photographs in a way similar to what YouPic proposes.

It's impossible to know at this point which system will win out, but it seems almost certain that copyright protection is about to undergo a revolution.

We live in interesting times.  

I look forward to seeing how this plays out.


P.S. By the way, if you're interested in learning more about blockchains, Bitcoin, or cryptocurrencies, you can check out this online course by my affiliate partner Mike Newton (yes, the same Mike Newton we know as a photographer, and who appears in this goofy video of mine).  Mike has created an excellent "Cryptocurrency 101" class that makes this confusing subject crystal clear. I recommend it highly.