Copyright Innovation

Copyright on the Blockchain? Collection Societies Team Up With IBM to Prototype a New Rights Management System

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin via Attribution Engine. Licensed under CC BY.

Blockchain is the buzzword among new industries looking to leverage a technology which has recently been labelled by the Harvard Business Review as a ‘foundational technology’, with ‘the potential to create new foundations for our economic and social systems.’ The music industry seems keen to put this promise to the test. Recently, three of the largest member-owned music collection societies in the world, namely the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music (SACEM); and PRS for Music have partnered to pioneer a new rights management system for musicians, which would be based on the blockchain.

Blockchain and the Music Industry

A blockchain is a form of distributed ledger technology, best known for being the foundation on which Bitcoin and similar digital currencies are based. A blockchain is essentially a records management system, in which data (the records or ‘blocks’) is distributed across a large public network. Two features in particular make blockchain a revolutionary technology – firstly, it is a distributed and decentralized system, which insulates the data from the risks that a centralized repository poses. Secondly, the blockchain is incorruptible. Transactions on the blockchain are cryptographically recorded, and provide an authentic account of any transaction at any point of time. Therefore, the provenance of each transaction can be authenticated, and any alteration without the complicity of the entire network is difficult. Both these features ensure the integrity of the data stored on the blockchain. The implications are radical – transactions on the blockchain can be independently and instantly verified without the need for a central authority (like banks or stock brokers), and solves a fundamental problem of trust between transacting parties.

For the most part, copyright in a sound recording primarily comprises two distinct rights – the right in the musical composition, which vests in the arranger or composer of the musical work and lyrics, and the right in the sound recording, which is the copyright in a particular recording of the musical composition, which typically vests in the record companies that produce the recording. These distinct rights are often held by different entities, depending on specific assignments and licensing contracts. Moreover, there may be multiple creators in respect of either the composition or the sound recording. These rights, in turn, comprise bundles of rights for copying, distribution and public performance. Managing the complexity involved in untangling this web of rights in each song is usually the responsibility of collective rights societies. In India, for example, the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) and the Phonographic Performance Ltd. (PPL), are copyright societies (though this is contentious) statutorily vested with the right to manage the administration of copyright in musical works and sound recordings, respectively. The copyright societies play an important role in ensuring that creativity is incentivized by making sure that artists are adequately compensated for the use of their work. This, in effect, means keeping track of every song that is licensed by their members, including when and by whom it is played, collecting the royalty payments and distributing them across the rights holders.

The Attribution Problem In Digital Music Distribution, and the Endless Possibilities of Blockchain Applications

Even as digital music service providers like Saavn and Spotify have proliferated and provided innovative models for the music distribution, tracking the rights in each song as well as the royalty payments has not gotten easier. This creates a situation where music streaming services are unable to trace the appropriate creator of a song, and therefore unable to use the copyrighted work or pay royalty on the same. While this problem can be avoided when licensing from large record labels and publishers, it is exacerbated where independent artists are concerned.

This problem of attribution is what ASCAP, SACEM and PRS hope to solve. According to a press release, these societies aim to use blockchain technology, specifically the open source hyperledger protocols, to manage the links between sound recordings International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCs) and music work International Standard Work Codes (ISWCs). These codes provide standards for incorporating metadata within songs, which is a crucial step towards identification of songs for the purposes of tracking. A similar system is also being developed by Spotify, after its acquisition of the blockchain technology firm Mediachain. While the exact mechanism which they propose to utilize is unclear, some hypothetical models are described below:

The blockchain could be used to create a decentralized repository of the rights information about every song which is licensed by a copyright society or societies. This rights information would also link each sound recording to its underlying musical composition, which can be stored on the blockchain each time a song is used by a digital music service provider, to verifiably identify both the original sound recording as well as the musical work. Every time a online music service provider wishes to license the song and/or identify the person to whom royalties should be paid, it can refer to this authoritative database. Initiatives to create such a database already exist, such as singer Imogen Heap’s company, Mycelia.

Potentially, the blockchain can also be used to write self-executing contracts or ‘smart contracts’, which automatically allow listeners to pay the creators as per the information and the terms encoded on the blockchain, without any third party intermediation. This could potentially also help comply with statutory directives such as the norm in India, where underlying composers have to be paid an equal share in the royalties for exploitations outside standard mediums, by including the payment of royalties as per the statutory provisions as a necessary condition for the use of the songs.

While it’s nice to dream of a techno-utopian world without an oligopolistic recording industry and publishing houses, free from the mismanagement of royalties by copyright societies, it must be kept in mind that blockchain technology is at a nascent stage, and a lot of the applications of the technology are currently speculative. However, if this technology does manage to take off, it can have the potential to rewrite how the music industry functions – the massive decentralization made possible by the blockchain could connect artists with consumers without intermediation by publishing houses, records industries or copyright societies. This could, indeed, be the foundational technology for a new kind of music industry.

[Post Script: The image has been taken from the Mediachain Attribution Engine, which uses data from blockchain applications to trace the source for images for proper attribution (similar to the blockchain system for music described in my piece). It is available currently for openly licensed images (licensed through Copyright Commons) which allows attribution for each photo on its repository. The engine also allows reverse searching images which it stores, allowing you to look up the proper author of any image you may wish to use, as long as it is indexed. More information on the engine is available here.]

Further reading:

The networked record industry: How blockchain technology could transform the consumption and monetisation of recorded music, Marcus O’Dair, Middlesex University (March 2016).

Watermarking Technology and Blockchain in the Music Industry, Bill Rossenblatt, (April, 2017).

How Blockchains Can Support, Complement, Or Supplement Intellectual Property, Coalition of Automated Legal Applications (May 2016)


  1. Achille Forler

    (Your article has to be read in conjunction with Kiran George’s of May 12, 2016)

    Music metadata is incredibly messed up, for reasons that are well known. After the failure of the Global Repertoire Database in 2014, this mess is currently being cleaned up by a handful of players, thus reducing the multiplicity of databases.

    Blockchain technology and, we should not forget, Artificial Intelligence are now providing the tools to achieve, maybe within 5-7 years, perfect accuracy and easy – i.e. smart – licensing. That said, the ASCAP-PRS-SACEM is only the latest of several endeavours based on blockchain (and AI). It is interesting to note that, except for Kobalt and Music Rights, they are all Society-driven.

    All these developments will finally make the music industry fully adequate to meet the staggering challenge of monetising and accurately distributing the royalties for trillions of micro-transactions. To give you an idea of the challenge, I estimate that by next year the IPRS would have to process around 4 Petabytes of data to monitor th exact usage of music, fully monetise the same and accurately distribute the royalties to the rights owners.

  2. Divij Joshi Post author

    Dear Achille,

    Thank you for your insight. Indeed, uniform standards for metadata are crucial to these projects, since the blockchain will always rely on these to identify and trace back the musical works (and I have linked Kiran George’s piece in my blog post as well). Applications like Mediachain have tried to work around the lack of uniform standards by incorporating multiple standards to increase the base of works which can be identified. It’s exciting to see societies take up initiatives like these. Hope IPRS can take this forward in India too!

  3. Definitely not Naruto

    The use of the Blockchain is unfathomable and should not be restricted to licensing, instead the technology must transgress the Banking sector to avoid the 3rd party role and avoid the lag in terms of time. It will eventually make the banking sector more responsible to the customer and faster.
    Further, the issue of the Aadhar data storage can be resolved via the use of this technology to avoid any hacks into the servers as it is nearly difficult to hack into a ledger created upon such technology (as per my limited knowledge). I admit this technology is yet to be perfected but the application of it on the Aadhar can be used to keep the UIDAI server data. In fact, all the personal data pertaining to an individual can be safely kept on such ledgers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.