Posted: January 18, 2019 -
Masha McConaghy is the Founder of ascribe, a service enabling immutable attribution for artists with clear provenance for both digital and physical art; BigchainDB, a blockchain database, tuned towards handling metadata and the co-founder of Ocean Protocol, a decentralized data exchange protocol to unlock data for AI. ascribe was one of the first applications built on top of the Bitcoin blockchain and aimed to empower artists by creating a transparent connection between them and their work. It allowed for the construction of unique digital editions, whilst avoiding any confusion as to who the creator is. Masha is a trained Museum Curator, with a degree in Museology from the Louvre School, as well as a PhD in Art and Commerce from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University.
Masha spoke at Christie’s Art + Tech Summit in the panel discussion: Blockchain in the Art World – Digital Art (Youtube.com)
Hello Masha, we have been looking forward to speaking with you.
Where did the idea for ascribe come from? How does the platform work?
In the summer of 2013, we started working on a project that became ascribe, a blockchain-based intellectual property (IP) attribution tool. We asked: how can creators of digitally based works get compensated? We realized there was a big problem in the digital art world: collectors did not understand how to value something intangible like a digital file. Therefore, they were reluctant to collect digital work. In turn, this made it hard for artists working with digital tools to monetize their work. Digital files have different properties than physical paintings: they can be copied easily with no loss of quality, and spread on the internet in seconds. The big question was: how do you collect digitally based artworks? Towards an answer, we asked : what if you could own digital art the way you own Bitcoin?
Ascribe was in beta throughout 2014, and officially launched in January 2015. It reflected our vision of empowering people, making it possible for them to monetize digital property. It was clear from the beginning that the concept of ascribe could be applied to music, 3D design, personal data and intellectual property (IP) in general.
What was the progression from ascribe to the creation of BigchainDB?
In working on ascribe, we gained a deeper understanding of the space of Intellectual Property and the problems of creators. We realized that the Bitcoin blockchain was not well suited to our application’s needs.
First, the IP licensing wasn’t flexible enough, which harmed the user experience. We solved that via collaborations in 2015 and 2016 through a COALA working group, resulting in a standard called COALA IP.
The second – and much larger – issue was one of scale. For example, one marketplace considering using ascribe was processing 100,000 photos a day. That was the same volume as entire the Bitcoin network at the time; and Bitcoin itself was already considered clogged. We couldn’t lump the transactions because we needed clean provenance; we needed a decentralized approach to store structured data—a database. In parallel with our work, we saw friends building decentralized applications having the same challenges of scale.
In short: while the ascribe concept made sense, the underlying infrastructure needed improvements.
This led us to build BigchainDB software – a blockchain database. BigchainDB’s big idea was to draw on existing open-source databases like RethinkDB and MongoDB that could not only scale, but were mature pieces of software deployed broadly to industry. We started the BigchainDB prototype in mid-2015, and in February 2016 we open-sourced the alpha code. We’ve then continued to improve upon BigchainDB, releasing 1.0 in mid 2017 and 2.0 in mid 2018.
What problems is BigChainDB looking to solve?
BigchainDB is well suited to problems that need storage of metadata – like artist name, art work name, current and past owner of the works, etc, and links to the actual work – where this storage of metadata cannot rely on a single centralized party and is not mutable (easy to change). It can handle thousands or millions of records easily, and those can be easily searched via its query capabilities.
You launched Ocean Protocol last year, which is an ecosystem composed of data assets and services. How does it work?
Ocean started with the question: Society runs on data, yet much of it is controlled by a handful of companies with more power and resources than most nations. How can we equalize access to data, and make the most of modern AI and compute?
It turns out that the answer to this is like the answer we had arrived at in the ascribe days when we were directly targeting the art world: we need decentralized, immutable metadata with a strong chain of provenance. But now, rather than for just art works, it was for the broader class of data itself. Our learnings in ascribe (handling IP, metadata) and in BigchainDB (blockchain & databases at scale, handling privacy) were critical in our design for the architecture of Ocean. At its heart, Ocean has the concept of a contract-style service agreement – not unlike a commission for an artist to create a given piece, or for a curator to create a given show. In Ocean, the service agreements operate on data, transforming input data into a new output dataset, all orchestrated by on a blockchain. The history of service agreements over time is the provenance.
Coming full circle: Ocean technology itself is general enough to serve a broad variety of applications, including ascribe-style use cases of the art world. And, as you have seen, our learnings from art have led to learnings for technologies of broader societal impact. This is a wonderful example of art leading the way, yet again.
What are the benefits of storing art online on the blockchain. How secure is it?
To be clear, one doesn’t store the digital files for art directly on the blockchain. Blockchains aren’t meant for that. Blockchains are great for storing metadata – information about the work and the links to the work itself – in a decentralized, immutable fashion. They are also great for securely tracking and transferring ownership of a given work.
Blockchain networks for data storage, like Filecoin, Swarm and Storj, incentivize storage of multiple copies of data (e.g. images), by multiple parties. It’s more secure because if one or even a few parties fail (e.g. a fire, a hack) then the remaining parties have copies. This is better than traditional storage where one hack could destroy all the data.
You are a trained museum curator and have previously spoken about your passion for curating. Are any of the skills transferrable to what you are doing now, are there any similarities?
Absolutely. Curation for me is more than just organizing an exhibition. It is about having a vision and “telling the story” to the public through the artworks. It is about putting the artist’s work in the best light possible for the audience to understand what was the artist’s concept, idea, story … he/she wants to tell through their work.
In a start-up you work with “artists” who build the vision and you need to “tell the story” to the world through the product. The difference is that in the start-up world the “artwork” has to solve a specific problem, pain point for the users.
When curating exhibitions, you are involved in all aspects of it. Starting from conceiving the vision for the exhibition, communicating with the artists, communicating the vision and the mission to the audience, marketing and mediating, organisation logistics as well as the sales if it is in the commercial setting. Working in a startup is very similar, just using different tools and growing and adapting fast.
When buying a piece of digital art whether it be a video, gif, screensaver what do you actually own?
We observed a lot of confusion about “ownership” in the digital art world. Fortunately, there’s a clean, legally binding way to address it, that draws on copyright law and contract law. Ownership itself is simply a bundle of rights: the right to publicly display something, the right to sell it to others, and so on. Creation of a work establishes a broad set of initial rights (copyright law); and contracts can transfer some of these rights to others. Ascribe’s approach to ownership of digital art draws on this insight.
Specification of the particular rights is complicated and can be confusing for non-professionals. Unless you are represented by a gallery that has a legal contracts system in place that states those rights in case of the purchase it is very hard to know what your rights are, or how to transfer them. There are no standard rights.
As a collector you should pay attention when purchasing a digitally based artwork. For example, I saw one collector who bought a CD with video work, for tens of thousands of dollars. After 5 years the CD stopped working. The collector discovered that he only had the rights to the CD. He couldn’t get a new file from the artist. For sure, it could be also part of the intent of the artist and there are some collectors that collect ephemeral works , but this should be transparent to all parties involved and stated in the purchase contract.
Remember, with a combination of copyright and contract law, it’s possible to establish ownership and usage rights. However, it hasn’t been widely used yet, because it’s been too hard to use. With 180 different copyright laws in 180 different countries, it’s expensive to register in some cases and it hasn’t been easy for the individual users.
Traditional solutions to it have been centralized – traditionally you would be relying on the ownership database of a gallery or centralized online shop.
Going forward, standardized licenses and contracts will be common practice. Contract law has far less variance across borders than copyright law and this is key to the standardization. This transparency into ownership and usage rights would benefit artists and collectors alike. Individual creators should be able to use existing laws to protect their IP, to monetize their digital creation and to share their ideas.
Sometimes a work can be modified by different artists multiple times and the provenance and authenticity can become muddled. Is this something that can now be recorded?
It’s actually quite straightforward to resolve this digitally: simply record the provenance of changes online; and ideally do it decentralized & immutable. Google docs has this in a cloud setting (albeit centralized). In the world of software engineering, there’s a tool called “git” that allows software developers to collaborate and easily track/modify/accept/reject changes by each other. Github has become the leading portal for git-managed software, used by millions of developers. This can be layered on top of blockchain to get decentralization & immutable provenance.
Do you think the attitude to collecting digital art is changing?
The whole Internet is changing and this change will influence all aspects of our everyday life. Digital art and the art market as a whole will inevitably undergo changes. Since the Internet went mainstream we’ve been through two phases. The first was extremely positive, the second, a little less so.
The first phase was when people really experienced the Internet for the first time in the 1990s, thanks to the invention of the World Wide Web and the first easy-to-use web browser. It was the wild west of the Internet, with flashing gifs and personal home pages.
The second phase was all social media and the cloud. While easier to use, it has become more centralized and is controlled by a small handful of “horsemen of the Internet” like Facebook that control vast amounts of personal data. It’s been less positive because the Facebooks of the world are incentivized to monopolize our attention, without a care for our personal well-being.
The approaching third phase — Web3 — will be powered by blockchain. I think it will be amazing for digital art and the art market as a whole, bringing the best of both worlds, the democratized spirit of the first phase and the ease of use of the second. New systems for buying, consuming, distributing and displaying digital art will inevitably appear and I believe that artists will be better compensated through those new systems. It is not just that collecting digital art is changing, but collecting as a practice is changing because of the ever-evolving media used by artists and new technologies available as tools for collectors.
Many people still hold reservations about going digital and are perhaps worried about losing control of their work. Why do you think this is a concern and should it be?
Collecting is a very subjective practice and linked to people’s’ personality. Digital nature of files and the WWW definitely changed the nature of “ownership”. The main question some collectors might have is: how do you share your digital or digitalized collection with the world, without losing “control”? Many hesitate to share their work on the web because once the copies start spreading, there’s this feeling of loss of control and ownership. There are technologies that can help to regain “control”, such as blockchain for provenance of the title of the works and AI with web-crawling for visibility on works are spreading online. For me, as a collector and a consumer of art, it’s about having transparency and visibility into usage rights, clear attribution, and a clean chain of ownership. It is also important to have a choice of different collecting models, whether for editions, sharing, licensing, multiple ownership or online streaming.
How do you think we can go about making the art world “less decompartmentalised” in terms of thinking of the “art world” and the “digital art world?”
I would say two words : value and education.
Value. When the digitally based works reach the value of the physical ones this decompartmentalisation will start to disappear. Right now, digitally based works, having the form of a file, are less valued because of the medium which, as I mentioned previously, is easily copied without loss of quality and can be spread on the internet in seconds, without linking to the creator. Asdigital scarcity, attribution and provenance,are solved we will see digital works valued more highly.
Education about *digital*ownership and collecting. We as humans tend to be the sole proprietors of what we collect. We don’t like to “share”. We love to have “exclusive” things. As we have seen the digital nature of things and since the WWW, the meaning of “ownership” and “collecting” changing. For example, one can own the resale rights of a web domain where the artwork is living, while at the same time millions of people can access the work and display it on their computers at their homes. Once we learn about the possibilities where artists can make a living from their works, things will start to change.
There are a lot of amazing projects and galleries that challenge that conservative way of things, such as Transfer Gallery, dada.nyc, left.gallery, rareart.io, verisart.com and more to come.
Image credit: Alberto Granzotto