Introducing Bitmark — The Property System for Data
Historically, Western economic progress has been pushed forward by two incredibly powerful legal frameworks: private property and intellectual property. Before there was any modern notion of private property, all property was owned either by the Crown or the Church. In England, property did not have a legal definition until the 17th century when the term entered popular parlance in reference to land ownership. Monarchs awarded gifts of land to selected individuals by granting them a title (e.g., “Duke,” Earl,” “Lord”) which carried with it ownership rights to a specific parcel of land. These properties were made productive by the commoners who inhabited them as subsistence farmers. The commoners collectively worked the “commons” for the ultimate benefit of their entitled landlords.
Starting in the 12th century, certain commoners undertook the radical process of enclosing portions of land from the larger commons. Such acts were gradually recognized as a commoner’s assertion of an exclusionary right to ownership of both the land as well as the fruits of their labor produced from the land. This movement accelerated in the 16th and 17th centuries despite strong objections from various factions of the entitled nobility, and legislation was proposed to counteract the process. But Parliament faced a major dilemma. Enclosed land improved agricultural productivity so much that significantly fewer farmers were needed. Much of the labor force fueling the Industrial Revolution that was making England so powerful at the time was the result of displaced commoners migrating to the cities for work. After weighing the various political pressures, Parliament sanctioned large-scale land reform in 1801, thereby unleashing a powerful new force in the form of individual private property rights.
The evolution of intellectual property followed a similar trajectory. Early Europeans also tended to view knowledge as a kind of commons. All human understanding was ultimately an expression of God’s divine wisdom and was therefore collectively shared by everyone. However, as with the practice of monarchs awarding gifts of land titles to friends of the Crown, patents and copyrights emerged in the form of royally sanctioned monopolies. Patents were exclusive monopolies over specific markets or commodities, such as starch and salt. Copyrights related to the exclusive power to print and censor literary works. Queen Elizabeth I was so bold in her issuance of patent grants that commoners revolted and forced Parliament (again) to intervene and restrict the Crown’s patent powers to “projects of new invention” that were only enforceable for a limited number of years. Shortly after, Parliament stepped in again to transform copyright protections into a public law grant.
This synergy of private and intellectual property rights catapulted Western societies out of the darkness of feudalism and into an unprecedented era of economic progress and prosperity. The enabling factor for this seismic social shift was the realization that property held in common for the “greater common good” did so at the risk of massive inequity and decreased productivity. Private property rights enabled any commoner to become the king of his own castle and protected the freedom to improve one’s “lot in life” through hard work and resourcefulness. Intellectual property empowered any commoner to amass the wealth of kings as a reward for creating something valuable to society through individual ingenuity and invention. Both types of property secured a new form of sovereignty for individuals and together provided the necessary climate for the Industrial Revolution, in which new mechanical inventions eased the burden of all humanity and increased the individual level of wealth and wellbeing across all classes.
We are presently witnessing the rise of a third commons in the form of personal data. One reason for the perception that data is held in common stems from a general assumption that the conscious decision to create or transmit data using a networked device implies a release of the data into the public sphere and, therefore, a tacit relinquishing of any property claims. According to this perspective, if people really care about protecting their personal data, they shouldn’t “put it out there” in the first place, whether through the act of posting a personal photograph to a social network, sending a private message via a free messaging app, or wearing a fitness tracker. A second reason for the belief that personal data exists as a commons arises from the simple fact that, even if one did want to assert property rights over his or her data, no system exists to convert personal data into property. The inherently digital nature of data challenges established methods for identification and accountability within existing property systems.
If we have learned anything from the history of property, it’s that with every emergence of a commons there is equal potential for massive wealth creation and massive abuse. The recent epidemics of centralized data breaches, mass surveillance, and state-sponsored incursions on privacy attest to the increasing prevalence of abuse. As Aristotle recognized long ago in his polemic against the Polis of Platon, “The most common good is the least guarded.” As with previous commons, the most effective way to safeguard and develop undervalued resources is to convert them into property. We care most about that which we can own and protect. A property system for data would turn a growing social liability into an unparalleled new asset class.
Bitmark is creating this property system using specialized blockchain technology to convert personal data into property. Bitmark establishes individual data property rights by allowing anyone to issue digital property titles, or bitmarks, to any piece of personal data, akin to how land registrars track land titles or patent offices track patents. Each bitmark property is uniquely identifiable, fully encrypted, and has an unforgeable ownership history. Bitmark data properties can be sold or transferred just as easily as physical property through a secure peer-to-peer system. Bitmark empowers individuals to exert complete granular control over their data so they can safely and confidently participate in the emerging data economy. The Bitmark property system transforms our beleaguered personal data commons into a vibrant open economy that will propel the world into the next wave of economic prosperity.