Will blockchain change image libraries forever?

Everyone's after a slice of the blockchain pie at the moment: it's like magic fairy dust that you can sprinkle onto any business to make it suddenly look a lot more appealing to investors. Just look at Kodak. No sooner had it announced a plan to do a bit of blockchain, involving image rights management and a digital currency called KodakCoin, the struggling company's share price shot through the roof.

Granted, it then trickled back down again, but that's the nature of anything blockchain-related. The fact is that hardly anyone really understands what it is or how it works, only that it's new and exciting and could change everything, somehow. It's a classic bubble that's a magnet for over-excited investors, and the state of the price of BitCoin shows just how volatile it all is.

Everyone sniggered at KodakCoin, but the full idea has legs

Everyone sniggered at KodakCoin, but the full idea has legs

But regardless of the hype surrounding blockchain, its underlying tech has some useful applications. While the idea of KodakCoin naturally attracted rolled eyes and raised eyebrows, the idea of using blockchain as a way of managing image rights is a sound one.

Keeping track of who owns the copyright for a particular image can be a nightmare, and enforcing that copyright can be just as hard. Blockchain, however, is an ideal platform on which creators can register their ownership of an image, and it makes it just as easy to check who owns a particular work. Similarly it makes it very hard for someone to argue that they couldn't trace the image's owner if they've used it without permission.

Image rights portal Copytrack is using blockchain to create a Global Copyright Register, and it's just hooked up with another startup, Photochain, to cooperate on a new blockchain-based platform for buying and selling stock photography.

Photochain aims to decentralise the stock photography business

Photochain aims to decentralise the stock photography business

Photochain believes that its platform is going to revolutionise the stock imagery business by offering secure transactions through a peer-to-peer marketplace where most of the money goes straight to the seller within a few seconds, and by maintaining a digital copyright chain where every uploaded photo is permanently linked to its owner. There's a prototype of the system online now; Photochain plans to launch a full version later in the year.

Another company with similar plans is Wemark. It describes itself as a growing community of leading independent photographers licensing their photos directly to customers, with no agency involved, and again it's using blockchain technology to make this happen.

Wemark is another platform hoping to spoil things for the big stock libraries

Wemark is another platform hoping to spoil things for the big stock libraries

Like Photochain it promises a higher revenue share and the ability to set your own prices, as well as an immutable record of everyone who's licensed your work. And while it doesn't yet have a prototype to show, it claims to have thousands of photographs already uploaded to its system, and again hopes to launch later this year.

Will it float?

Both companies promise to benefit buyers and sellers by cutting out the middleman, but will they disrupt the existing stock imagery market? Maybe, and maybe not.

The appeal, both to photographers selling their work and to designers and art editors shopping for imagery, is self-evident. And unlike a lot of blockchain enterprises, both companies appear to be making really good use of the technology.

However, blockchain's still an immature technology with plenty of wrinkles that need smoothing out, particularly scalability. Photochain's prototype works nicely but with a pretty small database; how well it would work with a serious library featuring tens of millions of images is another matter.

Photostream's prototype is a neat proof of concept, but will it scale?

Photostream's prototype is a neat proof of concept, but will it scale?

It's early days, but it's hard to deny that this use of blockchain has potential. While both Photochain and Wemark appear to have what it takes to revolutionise the image market, the success of an image library is going to hinge on the quality and quantity of your content. That's where they're lacking, and where existing libraries are streets ahead.  

Furthermore, we wouldn't be at all surprised to see the existing players in the stock business either developing their own version of the technology or simply buying up either company further down the line. 

Whatever happens, it's going to be interesting. Watch this space.

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Jim McCauley

Jim McCauley is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler who started writing professionally way back in 1995 on PC Format magazine, and has been covering technology-related subjects ever since, whether it's hardware, software or videogames. A chance call in 2005 led to Jim taking charge of Computer Arts' website and developing an interest in the world of graphic design, and eventually led to a move over to the freshly-launched Creative Bloq in 2012. Jim now works as a freelance writer for sites including Creative Bloq, T3 and PetsRadar, specialising in design, technology, wellness and cats, while doing the occasional pantomime and street performance in Bath and designing posters for a local drama group on the side.