A recent discussion thread was ignited on Twitter between the leading figures of Bitcoin Cash (Roger Ver), Ethereum (Vitalik Buterin), and Ripple (David Schwartz) on the topic of copyright and identifying who the ‘consenting’ parties are that should be responsible for a copyright contract infringement.
The thread started with a statement from Roger Ver, who claimed that:
Copyrights are legitimate contractual agreements between consenting parties.
— Roger Ver (@rogerkver) September 4, 2018
The claim was disputed by Vitalik, who pointed out that there is a caveat in identifying consenting parties when those who upload a piece of copyrighted work are not the same as those consuming it:
“Disagree here in practice. Sure, someone who *uploads* a copyrighted work to a torrent network is liable for contract violation, but the *downloaders* are not; they never made an agreement with the copyright holder. And you only need one uploader….” – Vitalik
To this point, David Schwartz (CTO of Ripple), responded by saying:
“There’s no requirement that you be a party to the contract to be liable for intentionally causing the contract to be breached. Case law on this goes back to the late 1700’s”.
The topic was expanded on further by other participants in the crypto space. The crux of the discussion was around whether copyright is best defined as a contract between consenting parties, or as a blanket contract that all participants who engage with the content that is copyrighted must abide by (regardless of whether they consented to the contract in the first place).
Is there copyright ownership on ‘Bitcoin’?
This issue bears relevance in the crypto space, as the general ethos of the community is open and collaborative (the majority of the code used to develop blockchain applications is open source) making the concept of ownership and copyright very murky.
For example, many have criticized Roger Ver in the past for his decision to keep the name ‘Bitcoin’ for Bitcoin Cash, instead of creating a new name entirely. The criticism stems from the idea that he has piggy-backed off the popularity of Bitcoin which makes it easier for Bitcoin Cash to be adopted.
One can make the case that Bitcoin was never trademarked; so it is completely legal to use it, to sell it, and do whatever you want. Furthermore, even if Satoshi Nakamoto trademarked the name Bitcoin, based on Roger’s statement since Roger never consented to that agreement, he should be free to use the name as he pleases without penalty.
Are secondary market consumers liable for copyright infringement?
In the music industry, if I record a song and register it under copyright law, I can decide to sell it to people based on a blanket license that states that I am the owner of this work and it can’t be remixed or resold. However, if one listener decides to break this rule by buying my song and re-uploading it to a different platform under a different title, should all the people from this new platform who download it for free be liable for copyright infringement? They can argue that they did not consent to the original copyright laws created and are therefore exempt from them. Yet if the song is recognizable enough, it would be difficult to claim ignorance of the fact that what they were downloading for free did not belong to the uploader.
The limited utility of current smart contracts
This issue becomes even more problematic when we consider smart contracts and their limited utility in the field of copyright management. At the moment, smart contracts automate the transfer of funds or information between consenting parties (‘consent’ is determined by a user’s willing participation in the smart contract itself, or in the blockchain ecosystem where the smart contract runs). However, once users navigate outside of the blockchain ecosystem, the copyright terms embedded in the smart contract are no longer enforceable by code and must be enforced by traditional copyright laws.
A complex issue
Copyright ownership is a highly complex issue, particularly in a decentralized space where collaboration and open source technologies are the standard. As blockchain technology starts to seep its way into our centralized economy, which is built on strict rules around property rights and intellectual property, I foresee this discussion becoming increasingly relevant and more focused around implementing practical solutions to determine and enforce copyright ownership via more sophisticated future smart contracts.