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Could Blockchains Solve The Web's Image Attribution Problem?

The startup Mediachain thinks so—and it's already enlisting partners like MoMA to prove it.

Peace for Paris: @jean_jullien

The Internet has made it easy for an image to go viral: it can be copied, cropped, meme-fied and shared with millions of people in a matter of minutes. It's also made it nearly impossible to ensure that the image is properly attributed—the more it is shared, the more its origins are obscured. Think about all the effort it took to hunt down the creator of the David Bowie commemorative GIF, for example, or the artist behind the Eiffel Tower peace symbol after the Paris attacks.

That's a problem that Jesse Walden and Denis Nazarov are working to solve with Mediachain Labs, a startup that uses blockchain technology to track images on the Internet and ensure they are properly credited. For the past year, the pair has worked to create an open, decentralized network that will allow developers to cryptographically tag media to preserve authorship. This week, the company announced a $1.5 million round of seed funding that will help further this effort.

Mediachain is inspired by the blockchain technology that allows Bitcoin to be a completely open network that isn't controlled by any one party. Bitcoin ensures the safe exchange of money by tracking it with a database that can't be easily altered. Mediachain extends this technology to accommodate the large amount of data that makes up media—so that the same tracking system can be applied to images, artwork, and music.

The idea is to create basic network upon which developers can build applications. Walden and Nazarov describe it using email as an analogy: popular email servers like Gmail or Outlook both use a system of open protocols, like IMAP and SMTP, but have built their own interfaces and tools for users that distinguish them. Similarly, developers for Getty Images, for example, could use Mediachain's basic technology to build their own tools for artist publishing to that platform. Social media sites could do the same for their users.

When an image is shared from that platform, Mediachain would resurface the data that credits the artist. And the artist, in turn, will get to see where the image is being used elsewhere. Like a Google Alert for images, "it will preserve this whole rich chain and context of the image's history and life across the Internet," says Nazarov. It could also provide a way for artists and designers to get paid when their work is used commercially. This data trail will show where and why your work is being used.

Of course, it would do the same for major companies, art institutions, and media organizations—which could make it harder for an individual to use images without fear of facing copyright infringement (in other words, Fox News could nab you for using its image to make that Trump meme). But for Walden and Nazarov, the goal is openness, not restriction, and they believe that if images are attributed companies will be less likely to enforce take downs. "Trying to enforce scarcity is in opposition to the way that media propagates," says Walden. "So our goal with Mediachain is first and foremost to enable attribution and enable creators to participate in the attention economy, and then unlock ways that other value can be exchanged."

The success of Mediachain depends in large part on getting a lot of people to use it. For far, it's secured some big partners—MoMA, Getty Images, and the Digital Public Library of America are all on board—but their next big step after securing funding is building relationships with more institutions and companies. That's been a challenge—especially with art institutions that are reticent to even digitize their collections.

But Mediachain could solve that problem, too. "If a museum puts an image of an artwork online, it goes out all across the Internet and [museums] don’t know where it’s going without metrics or analytics," says Nazarov. "One of the promises of Mediachain is it could enable you to know. We see it as enabling these institutions so they're less afraid of opening their data. They could see open data as a business advantage to drive new types of engagement and interactions with collections and their organization."

For now, individual developers can start building on Mediachain technology. Learn more about it here.

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