Social Media, Digital Goods Copyright and Ownership: Blockchain, the Solution

Introduction

I was scrolling my Facebook timeline when I saw a slideshow with familiar photographs in it. It took me a while to realize those photographs were mine, as I took them at a concert where I worked, at a live music club. Immediately I looked for the ‘thief’ of my pictures as I got quite upset about it, mostly because not only were my pictures taken from an album of mine on my Facebook profile, but they also got cropped in such a way not to show my signature, which I usually add on important photographs I post on Facebook. In short, my pictures were downloaded, edited, and uploaded again on Facebook as if I did not even exist. At least, I thought, the person who stole my pictures to use them for promotion could have credited me as the real owner and ‘maker’. Afterwards, I realized how Facebook is not realiable at all when it comes to ownership and copyrights of artworks.

In this paper I will search for solutions to post photographic artworks on social media without losing ownership or copyrights. I will focus on the case study of Facebook to then deal with more specific social media platforms such as Binded which allow photographers to protect their works. I therefore will point out the importance of blockchain startups as a major field currently rising in opposition to the mainstream social media platfroms. The notions of digital ownership and ditgital rights will be explored along with the concept of participatory culture on digital media.

Literature review and major debates

According to scholar Henry Jenkins, the digital age allowed for the rise of a new democratic and open era called participatory culture, that one in which all of us can actively participate to the creation of content other than just passively using it (Jenkins). However, Jenkins, in his studies of participatory culture, does not seem to consider the ‘dark side’ of the digital era or of participatory culture itself, as in fact he merely overrates the possibility for democraticizing the world through an open and free network of digital media. Jenkins, thus, lacks a critical perspective through which it is possible to analyze participatory culture as a realm in which user generated content is exploited by both media owners and media users, that means we are free to generate content as much as a third party is free to take it. When it comes to creative content, ‘prosumers’ (producers and consumers) are exploited by the dominating corporations, precisely as Christian Fuchs argues in his Social Media: A Critical Introduction (Fuchs).

Digital photography is part of the participatory culture Jenkins deals with, because especially on these days, more and more photographers rely on social media platform such as Facebook to promote their work and reach a wide audience they would not reach otherwise. However, we have already seen how easy it is to lose owenership and control over photographs right after posting them on Facebook, and it is easy as well to find one’s own work used by other Facebook users or even by third parties to make money. Indeed, once we share, even through private chats, an artistic photograph, we may have already lost any control over it. That is what happened to me with a picture I took for a photographic project which I later shared with a friend on Facebook Messenger. In turn, my friend downloaded it on his phone, shared it with another person who eventually made a flier for a play using my photograph, without paying me any money or asking me for authorization.

According to the Title 17 of the United States Code, “the initial owner of the copyright to a work is the author, unless that work is a "work made for hire” (USC). This means every photograph I take is mine. Facebook policies, besides changing almost constantly, seem to be quite spectific on this point: “if you create one of those works, you obtain a copyright from the moment you create it. […] Remember, only original works are eligible for copyright protection. To be original enough for copyright protection, a work needs to be created by the author themselves, and must have some minimal amount of creativity.” (Facebook). Facebook states its will to protect you from both being denounced for infringement of others’ works, and for being the victim of someone else’s infringement of your own works; at the end of the day though, Facebook does not work out its own policies so well, for the user generated content being too wide and spread worldwide. Indeed, Facebook policies make a clear statement about the kinds of law regulations on copyright and ownership that may differ from one country to another (Facebook). Due to those complications, digital rights management, which according to EC-Council, is defined as “a set of access control technologies for restricting the use of proprietary hardware and copyrighted works” (EC-Council), might fail to work especially for small digital media users, such as me and all the freelancers who just want to use new media as platforms for visibility.

Discussion and critical analysis

While the US law might be more advancend in terms of new regulations over the ownership and copyrights of digital goods, according to digital entertainment lawyer and business advisor Jas Purewal, mentioned in an article by Hilary Osborne in The Guardian, “across the world the law is in a state of flux – it hasn't evolved to keep up with innovation in digital content” (Osborne). For this reason, Osborne points out clearly “there are not yet statutory laws around ownership of virtual goods, nor is there case law. The EU is looking at consumer protection in this area, but nothing has yet been passed, so Purewal says it is being left to the providers of content to decide what they will allow consumers to do with items they buy and share online. He says there are promising signs judges recognise that virtual content can be owned like physical content” (Osborne). What The Guardian journalist states, using the argument of specialist Purewal, is the need for us, the users of digital media content, to protect our work by ourselves, which means either not to use digital media at all for creative content sharing, or to find out alternative ways. Even though, Osborne writes in 2012, it is not yet the case EU nor US have achieved strong regulations about this issue; thus the necessity for auto-protection from the users’ side comes by itself.

In this context, the relatively new wave of blockchain platforms coms in help. According to The Economist, “blockchain is a distributed ledger replicated on thousands of computers—bitcoin’s “nodes”—around the world and is publicly available. But for all its openness it is also trustworthy and secure. This is guaranteed by the mixture of mathematical subtlety and computational brute force built into its “consensus mechanism”” (The Economist). In other words, blockchain is a big virtual ‘storage’ where digital goods are protected. That means, no more Facebook or Instagram, no more struggle on keeping safe my photographs on social media: blockchain can do in our place.

Binded.com is the first social media platform based on blockchain structure. Binded states its mission as that “to make creativity the world’s most valuable asset” and its vision sounds appealing as well: “Copyright is an essential part of our world economy, yet no one has built a modern technology company to make copyright useful on the web. As the job landscape changes with the rise of automation, this problem will only continue to grow. Creativity is one of the few things that cannot be replaced by modern technology and in the future it will be even more important that people can make a living using their creativity. Today it's incredibly difficult to identify the copyright owner of a file on the web. Binded will change that. Join us in our mission to democratize copyright” (Binded). In short, this social media platform claims to freely take care of your digital goods through a blockchain system. It releases a blockchain record to the user when she uploads her content on the platform, and also it provides help in finding web copyright infringements on the content the user uploaded on the platform. In a context where signatures on photographs, inner watermarks, or Javascript right click blocks never work with 100%, certainty, Binded.com, founded by a team of young computer engineers, seems to have tackled and solved the problem of digital art photography on social media. When Fuchs complaints about Jenkins for his idealizing digital media and participatory culture, he also finds in Wikipedia and all the other no-profit digital platforms and websites the ultimate democratization space for free participation of users, who are not exploited at all from the side of any third parties (Fuchs). In these regards, Fuchs thus would definitely go for a free blockchain platform such as Binded, which, however, let us wonder how it makes money if not from its users.

As a matter of fact, blockchains are a complex digital structure which do not profit directly from the users of those platforms based on blockchains, but rather from other parties. According to Toshendra Sharma, “most blockchain make money by using the software as a Service - companies such as Tierion and Block cypher charge a fee for using their API and infrastructure with the help of professional services”; this means that it is the infrastructure the one party from which blockchain startups would profit. However, Sharma also states that because for the majority of these brand-new businesses the profits are extremely low as they start their companies, most of them do not even see the second year of life (Sharma). In part, the reason for this is to be found in the very nature of this technology, which has just started to be used and explored, and many companies still do not use it. Also, a company like Binded, although using the most recent and sophisticated technology aiming at protecting originality and creativity of the users, is small and new enough to stay in the shadow of the big social killers like Facebook and Instagram.

Conclusion

Digital photography, as well as all digital goods which involve originality and creativity from the makers, will be soon safeguarded by blockchain-based social media platforms whereas, hopefully, Facebook, and the other mainstream social media networks, will conform their policies to the actual copyrights laws in order to compete with blockchains, or they too will start basing their structure on blockchains. Until then, art photographers and freelancers must rely on their own abilities to keep safe their works which will always be valuable as creative content. It is important in this realm to find a a way out to maintain a certain degree of balance between the search for visibility and audience in the jungle of the digital media and the protection of the values of the photographic works, which will more and more be considered abstract items for the digital world taking constantly over the concrete reality.

“Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior.” – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Bibliography

Binded. About Section. Binded. 2017. Web.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Buchet-Chastel. France: 1967. Print.

EC Council. Computer Forensics: Investigating Network Intrusions and Cyber Crime. EC Council Press. US: 2006. Print.

Facebook. Policies on Copyright Section. 2017. Web.

Fuchs, Christian. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. Sage. UK: 2014. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York University Press. US: 2008. Print.

Osborne, Hilary. “Do You Own Your Digital Content?”. The Guardian. September 2012. Web.

Sharma, Toshendra. “How Blockchains Startups Can Make Money?” Blockchain Council. September 2017. Web.

The Economist. “The Great Chain of Being Sure About Things” The Economist. October 2015. Web.

USC (United States Code). Government Printing Office. US. Print.

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