A joint research project conducted by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) has developed a new form of technology which, thanks to the power of cryptography and the bitcoin, the first-ever decentralized cryptocurrency, makes buying and selling digital creations, such as songs or films, much easier, while also protecting their authorship. Cryptography is the science of writing encryptions and codes that ensure the confidentiality of classified information and documents. Similarly, when documents are signed digitally, cryptography helps to guarantee their integrity and authenticity, two key features that also apply to cryptocurrencies. In this vein, the researchers' technology prevents copyright infringement on digital creations and fortifies transactions between buyers and sellers, who will no longer need to rely on intermediaries.
Democracy in the art market
Cristina Pérez-Solà, from the UOC's Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, and Jordi Herrera, Jordi Herrera, researcher from the Department of Information and Communications Engineering at the UAB, are the co-creators of this new technology, called BArt, which the researchers have recently discussed in an article in the scientific journal Concurrency and Computation: Practice and Experience. It is a "layer on top of bitcoin technology, harnessing all of its benefits, such as the fact that it operates thanks to a distributed, open and transparent computing record on which all transactions are public", Pérez-Solà pointed out. What's more, BArt provides traceability, as artists can monitor and track their artwork, as well as security, since asset owners can prove their ownership cryptographically, rendering identity theft practically impossible. BArt is also advantageous in terms of curbing censorship; as the UOC researcher put it, "there is no technological way to banish certain pieces or thwart transactions between artists and their buyers".
The technology also stands out for its decentralized nature, given the lack of a central authority running the system, which differs from other contexts, such as when banks make transactions using foreign currency. According to the researchers, this feature fosters "democracy in the art market, since both long-time and up-and-coming artists can use the proposed system to sell their work while bypassing the need for distribution or sales intermediaries".
How it works
Pérez-Solà gave us a rundown of how the technology works, explaining that "we create tokens, or digital assets developed with bitcoin technology, which symbolize the rights someone has over their artwork, or any other digital content for that matter, including songs and films. This way, content creators are able to place a set value, in bitcoins, on the rights they have over their assets".
"The blockchain technology we use allows users to buy and sell content without the need for third parties, like distributors, who often keep a part of the profit for themselves", she added. The technology lets users sell their work by exchanging copyrights for bitcoins, while simultaneously safeguarding digital creations by making ownership completely transparent. And, as far as censorship is concerned, the system's highly distributed and decentralized structure means that "it is almost impossible for a production company or even a government authority in disagreement with a piece of content to thwart its sale", the UOC researcher went on to say.
Content creators can sell their work or copies of their work, or they can make their creations available to view. In other words, they get to decide how others use what belongs to them. The technology put forth by the University "works like a layer built on top of bitcoin technology. It's like the internet, which is a layer on which other applications, such as websites and IP telephony (VoIP), operate", Pérez-Solà explained. Thus, the researchers have designed a protocol which takes advantage of an already available infrastructure, including the cryptographic features and other benefits it offers. "In other words, we haven't designed a new, bitcoin-inspired system, but have rather integrated the bitcoin into our technology. We've identified other solutions which propose similar alternatives, but they aren't mature enough: they don't allow users to sell their work and they haven't figured out how to block censorship", the researcher clarified.
BArt uses a bitcoin hash as the unique identifier for all digital creations, thereby enabling their purchase and sale through bitcoin-based blockchain transactions with a specific format, which is laid out in the protocol jointly defined by the UOC. Users need only have access to a bitcoin wallet, as well as the standard interaction software needed to work with it, to send and receive transfers, although this will require adaptations in order to comply with the protocol. The technology plans to use asset representations and the exchange of tokens on top of the bitcoin, which is made possible by protocols known as 'colored coins', or methods for associating real-world assets, such as an object or a piece of digital art, with addresses in the bitcoin network. BArt harnesses these colored coins and imbues them with a special significance in order to identify specific transactions, thanks to the implementation of wallets established in the protocol. "We codify the transactions in a way that creates a win-win situation for everyone. When someone buys something, they are able to download a key that they can use to decipher and subsequently view the purchased content", Pérez-Solà highlighted.
The secret of the bitcoin
It is no coincidence that Google's currency converter, Google Finance, has included the bitcoin among its list of currencies. Created by a developer who goes by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, the pioneering cryptocurrency has celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2019. Upwards of 18 million bitcoins have been mined around the world to date. Although their value has fallen in recent years after peaking at 17,000 euros per bitcoin in December 2017, they are still highly valued, with an exchange rate of more than 7,000 euros per bitcoin. The very first transaction took place in 2010, and 10,000 bitcoins were used to purchase a single pizza, since each coin was only worth a few dollar cents at the time.
The bitcoin was born out of the desire to anonymously, securely and instantaneously transfer money between people from any corner of the Earth without the need for third-party intervention, such as that of a bank. Since its creation, over 10 million people have begun to use the currency. To operate using bitcoins, people simply need to create an electronic wallet. Commissions on transactions are very low, averaging in at 25 euro cents, transfers cannot be cancelled and users are the only ones with control over their money. There is no person, institution, company or government controlling the bitcoin. Transfers are rather supervised by thousands of programmers carrying out a task known as mining. It is estimated that one block of transactions is mined every 10 minutes. The reward is then split between the miners responsible for verifying the transactions using computing calculations. The system is designed for there to be 21 million bitcoins in circulation by 2140, at which point mining will by forcibly halted.
The bitcoin is possible thanks to blockchain technology, a distributed database in the form of a growing list of records, called blocks. The technology securely stores and chronologically orders transactions or tidy data, without the need for mediators. The system keeps a copy of the data and the details of each transaction in such a way that the blocks join together like links in a chain, which ensures that they cannot be manipulated, erased or modified.
Article of reference
Pérez-Solà, C.; Herrera-Joancomartí, J. BArt: Trading digital contents through digital assets. Concurrency and Computation: Practice and Experience. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpe.5490