A few years ago I asked my lawyer to help me write a new user license for my books and sound effects. While he was a copyright pro, he didn’t know much about sound fx libraries in particular. He was surprised at the lack of protection for sound collections. He asked me if I knew about blockchain.
I had never heard the word before. He explained the broad strokes: blockchain was a technology designed as a foolproof way to navigate digital content permissions. Intrigued, I kept my eye on the technology. I was not convinced it would become widespread. Recently that changed. An announcement last week took the technology one step closer to becoming a part of our digital lives.
Today’s article takes a first look at blockchain and sound collections. It presents ideas to discover if blockchain is a viable way to protect field recordings, sound design compositions, and use them in the audio projects we create.
Why It’s Important to Protect Creativity
It takes a great deal of inspiration, time, and effort to create something and share it. There’s nothing more discouraging for creators than seeing this process compromised. It’s frustrating to have one’s content shared without their knowledge.
Most people assume this is because others will get their content for free. That’s true. However the frustration of losing potential cash from sales of sound effects or music is only part of the issue. What’s arguably more significant to sound library owners is that they lose control of their creations. Their bullet sound library or wildcat collection essentially becomes part of the public domain. It is no longer theirs. It is now owned by everyone. That can make creating anything seem utterly pointless.
These discussions usually divide people along two lines: the people that create the content, and those that consume it. After nearly 19 years of sharing sound, I believe that this perspective is incomplete. Things aren’t that simple, and that’s why a solution to the problem remains elusive.
I have a series about copyright, piracy, and sound sharing psychology planned for the future. For now, the most important thing to take away from this is that everyone can identify with the value of cash – either earning it, or preserving it – as well as the impact of control – either losing it, or using it.
I mention this to illustrate that the need to protect content emerges from both strong practical and emotional motivations. These needs will never vanish. This is why there have been repeated attempts to protect content with digital rights management, and endless efforts to elude it.
These reasons are why digital rights management (DRM) refuses to disappear. Yes, some larger companies offer DRM-free content, such as gaming vendors (GOG) and music shops (Apple iTunes). It remains important to another group that we can all identify with: smaller artists such as independent sound effect library creators. Why?
As independents, they may lack the knowledge to navigate copyright paperwork, the resources to track down misuse, and the cash to enforce rights in court. And it is precisely these people that blockchain helps the most.
A Brief History of Blockchain
What is blockchain?
The blockchain technology emerged from a need to protect something more universal than sound fx libraries: cold, hard cash.
In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto created a digital currency or cryptocurrency called Bitcoin. The upside? The currency was not controlled or manipulated by any central bank. Accounts were anonymous. Funds were protected by strong encryption. So, cash could be stored and exchanged privately without being subject to governmental economies and so on.
How was this possible? Bitcoin used something called a blockchain: an encrypted database of transactions. What’s important to note is that the list is stored not in one place. That would make it vulnerable. Instead, it is stored in many places at once: online. That, along with its strong encryption, makes it impossible to tamper with the database. It becomes a “public ledger.”
What is Blockchain?
Here are the broad strokes to understanding block chain. It is:
- flexible. It can be applied to many kinds of digital content.
- a list of data: transactions, authorizations, etc.
- distributed: the list does not exist in one place. It is shared across a network. There are many synchronized copies of the list.
- a verifiable list. Since it is public, the transactions (while anonymous) are transparently stored.
- indestructible: the list cannot be tampered with. Each list is checked against the other to ensure everything remains accurate.
- permanent: the blockchain cannot be removed from the content.
- inexpensive: since the blockchain is distributed publicly, there’s no need to involve (or pay) third parties like banks or merchant accounts.
There are a few drawbacks to the system, too:
- it requires an online connection. Since the blockchain is stored online, a user will need to check it via an Internet connection.
- if a business or the system fails, the user won’t be able to use the content at all.
Cryptocurrency and blockchain are complex subjects. However, the takeaway for sound library creators and fans is that it has the potential to protect sound clips permanently.
The Benefits of Blockchain for Sound Publishers
The benefits to sound fx library owners are significant:
- Stating rights. The blockchain will clearly state the rights of the work, including who created it, when, etc.
- Addional information. Other info can be added to the blockchain. This can help people learn more about the artist, discover their other creations, etc.
- Provide transactions and control. The blockchain can authorize who uses it and how it is shared.
- Avoid third-party involvement. By linking the creator and the user directly (and anonymously), in theory there would be no need for third-party distributors, payment gateways (i.e., PayPal), or hardware verification (HASP, iLok, etc).
- No need to police content. Blockchain removes the need to track usage. Publishers/sound editors won’t need to worry about confronting facilities that have multiple unlicensed copies of their library. They won’t need to think about suing anyone, or any legalities whatsoever. It’s quite simple: people who do not have a license authorized in the blockchain won’t be able to use the content at all.
And the benefits for the users?
- Lower costs. Some digital content requires licensing fees to use hardware to protect their content, such as iLok. Other middle-men like payment gateways take a slice from every online transaction. Since publishers don’t need to use hardware or distributors to share sounds, overhead will be lower and prices would (in theory) be reduced.
- Metadata. Right now metadata can be wrapped around sound files. However, re-saving sounds can wipe this information. By contrast, blockchain metadata is permanently assigned to a file.
- Discoverability. Found a cool lion roar? Want to track down the rest of the collection? All the information would be in the blockchain.
Sound too good to be true? I thought so as well. But interest in using blockchain isn’t just about protecting music or sound effects. It can be used to protect and share medical records or create a bullet-proof voting system, for example.
IBM was one of the first to embrace the technology. Lately, they announced they’re using blockchain to track the path jewelry takes from a mine to the store. Huawei, the third biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world, is in talks to bake blockchain directly into their phones, making cryptocurrency transactions easier.
More significantly, last week Sony applied for a patent to store digital rights in blockchain. Of course, Sony owns dozens of music labels, as well as motion picture studios and television networks. The result? You can expect that a large amount of the music and films you have will be verified by blockchain.
Blockchain and Sound Effect Libraries
How could this possibly work with sound fx collections?
Imagine this scenario:
- Visit a sound library website. Download any sound library you want.
- Anonymously buy a license to use a sound library. This unlocks every sound clip in the collection.
- When using a sound (or perhaps when transferring to a library drive), a call is made to the blockchain to verify that it can be used.
And what about publishers?
- Associate every library’s sound file to the blockchain. This process would work similar to writing metadata today. Of course, extra options would be needed, such as assigning rights to a file, conditions for activation, etc.
- Place sounds online. The sounds would not need to be stored securely, since they would require activation from the blockchain to be used at all.
- “Unlock” the sounds when a user requests authentication by modifying the blockchain to allow permission.
Naturally, that is oversimplified, but that’s the concept.
Challenges for Blockchain and Sound FX Collections
It’s clear that blockchain will be coming for music, television, and films. But is it viable for sound fx collections?
I hear a lot of sound publishers mention the need to protect their sound libraries. Many say true protection is impossible. Why?
There are two considerable challenges:
- Music, video, and film are consumed in isolation. Other media isn’t needed to listen to music, or watch a motion picture. Each is provided as a complete package. By contrast, sound effects are almost always used as part of a new composition. What happens when you take a 1,000 sound clip session to the mixing stage? Will an editor be shut out from using library tracks on a new workstation? Will they need to verify clips from 20 separate publishers before beginning? That scenario won’t last long on the mix stage.
- No sound effect remains in its native state for long. Often tracks are re-recorded or blended to make new compositions. While the blockchain will remain with a sound even if it is chopped into many parts, it is unclear if it will protect a sound when it is bounced or rendered with others into a new composition.
Those are daunting challenges. However, I would imagine that sound library creators would be happy to give ground on the above issues to ensure collections are protected more widely.
A Possible Solution for Sound FX Libraries
Here’s my solution: only complete sound libraries would be checked against the blockchain. Files used individually would not checked, and could be used freely.
To expand: individual clips used in a mix or as game assets won’t need to be verified and won’t be turned off if no authorization exists. (That means they wouldn’t need an Internet connection, either.) However, if the entire content of one sound library appears at a different location with the same authorization, the second one will not work. The idea here is that since most sound libraries are pirated in bulk (entire libraries, not fragments of them), the blockchain would eliminate wholesale duplication of content, say, from torrent websites.
Sometimes someone may remove a part of a sound library they do not want. Won’t that create problems? Let’s say a user doesn’t like one thunder sound out of 30 in a sound library. They delete it. Wouldn’t that de-authorize the whole library? Well, there could be a threshold, say, a random selection of 80% of the sound library is considered “complete”.
The result? This would cut down on unauthorized copies of the complete collections, but allow individual clips to be used freely in multiple projects for many clients.
Blockchain and Sound Libraries
How feasible is this?
DRM has had problems in the past. It has had the negative side effect of enforcing limitations on people who are legally paying for content anyway. In short, when a company employs DRM, it can be negatively perceived that the company assumes its paying customers are thieves.
Now, the reality of the situation is more nuanced, of course. However, there remains a struggle to present blockchain as an upside to customers. Why would they choose to embrace it and limit themselves, especially since using and sharing clips is so simple now? And the alternative to force the idea on everyone whether they like it or not is a quick way to destroy goodwill between a sound library and its fans. Apple, Amazon, and others have gotten around this by presenting the benefit of having your content always available in the cloud. Perhaps sound libraries could offer a similar pitch: hassle-free re-downloads when you need them. Maybe free updates?
And what about the technology? Of course, the technology hasn’t matured yet. But the reality is approaching. Sony clearly intends to use this for their music, television, and film content. They will be the first to create the tools needed to apply and monitor blockchain verification and grant use of content.
Will this make the transition to the sound fx world? Applying the blockchain information itself wouldn’t be difficult; a metadata app could do this quite simply as part of the existing embedding process. After, it would take a bit more work. It would require a big name to pioneer it, such as Sounddogs, Sound Ideas, or Pro Sound Effects. Afterwards, it would likely trickle down to smaller independent publishers.
No one can comment now if this will happen, or when. But questioning the possibility has merits in itself.
The Power of Recognition
It’s an encouraging prospect. That’s not because sound publishers owners want to police the library fans they have. Instead, it is possible to perceive this another way. How?
The Academy Awards, BAFTA Awards, film festivals, and others associations recognize effort and excellence. Celebrated winners return to their edit suites revitalized, ready to sculpt new creations that will inspire others. It doesn’t take a red carpet to spread this effect to others, however. Everyone knows what it is like to receive recognition for their work. Even smaller efforts can empower that lone field recordist to keep gathering exciting sounds never before set to tape. They can motivate a sound designer to continue crafting new, creative compositions.
Seen this way, no downside exists. Instead, what remains is an irresistible benefit: watching creativity flow throughout the community, inspiring others, and raising the appreciation for our craft worldwide.