On the internet, nobody knows you’re a renter.

The important differences between copyright, licensing agreements, and property titles.

Bitmark allows property titles to be assigned to digital content and data. The ownership and history of these titles, which we call “bitmarks” are recorded in the blockchain. We aim to extend traditional property rights into the digital environment.

The Bitmark property system will provide a foundational legal and economic framework to allow digital works to be bought, sold, borrowed, passed down, rented, loaned, and more. Before we can do all of these things with our digital assets, we first must make property titles clean. Empowering individuals to own their digital lives will help transform the digital environment into an even more valuable economy for both companies and individuals.

A few important definitions:

  • Copyright — Exclusive rights granting the owner of an original literary, musical, or artistic work to distribute and use.
  • License Agreement — Authorization, for a specified time or territory, from the owner to use their asset. Often to grant use of copyright.
  • Property Title — Legal instrument claiming ownership of an asset. The title functions as bundle of property rights that can be transferred.

In the physical world, individuals have freedom because property rights are clear.

The ways we use things in the physical realm, whether we have ownership of them or not, are usually quite clear. For example, when you buy a book you can write in its margins, give it to your friend, take 10 years to read it, or even throw it away. When you borrow a book from the library, because you do not own it, you’re expected to return it within the library’s conditions (on time, no writing in it, not damaged, etc). What we can and cannot do with things in the physical world is clear because there is a framework of standardized property rights, rules, and infrastructure that make it clear.

Another way to look at this is that property rights enable freedom. Titles make property rights transferrable from one owner to another. (That has economic and social value which we will explain later in this post.) Even though you don’t have a property title for that book you bought, it is still considered property and you are legally acknowledge as the owner of that book. Specifically your book is a form of personal property. Possession of personal property is the most simple indication of title. If there is suspicion about someone’s ownership of the item, a proof of legal acquisition, such as a bill of sale or purchase receipt, could be necessary for an ownership transfer. But in nearly all cases of personal property, transfer of possession to a good faith purchaser will convey title, no document is required.

Environments without ownership rules and rights for individuals are chaos, an anarchistic state in which there is no protection, no longevity, no security or sustainability for one’s assets and belongings. There is no better example of this than the digital world.

In our digital lives, copyright has taken away our freedom.

Software first became valuable about 40 years ago. Those in power instituted a system of licensing instead of property titles.

Why did licensing become the standard? That requires a brief history lesson.

Originally, computer programs were not protected by copyrights because they were not considered fixed, tangible works. Object code was distinguished from source code. (Object code is instructions for machines — source codes are for humans.) Object code was viewed as a utilitarian good, produced from source code rather than as a creative work in and of itself.

The U.S. Copyright Office attempted to classify computer programs by drawing an analogy: the blueprints of a bridge and the resulting bridge, compared to the source code of a program and the resulting executable object code:

It was this very analogy that caused the Copyright Office to issue copyright certificates for object code under its Rule of Doubt.

In 1974, the newly established U.S. Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works (CONTU) decided that computer programs, to the extent that they embody an author’s original creation, are proper subject matter of copyright.

Then in 1980, the U.S. Congress added the definition of computer program to existing copyright laws in order to allow the owner of the program to make another copy or adaptation for use on a computer. This legislation, plus court decisions such as Apple v. Franklin, clarified that the Copyright Act gave computer programs the copyright status of literary works. To simplify: Congress said compiling code is like writing War and Peace.

As a result, software companies began to claim that they did not sell their products but rather “licensed” them to customers. Why? Because this enabled them to avoid the transfer of property rights to the end-user via the first-sale doctrine. These software license agreements are now called end-user license agreements (EULAs).

The stuff you think you own in the digital world, isn’t actually yours.

It’s hard to overstate just how bad individuals have it.

For example, when you “buy” digital goods from the App Store, or when you “buy” books via Kindle, you’re not a owner. Apple and Kindle granted you a license to use their asset. This license is non-transferrable and revocable. This means that you can’t sell it on secondary markets or even give it away. And you’re beholden to their terms in using these assets, which they reserve the rights to change at anytime. In short, you thought you were buying but in fact you are renting. Licensing digital assets for use is as different from establishing digital property rights, as renting real estate is from owning buildings.

How can there be property rights on the internet for businesses but not individuals?

Individual humans create a lot of value by living their lives online — taking photos, sharing ideas and opinions, uploading personal financial and health information, and buying and storing things like music and movies.

In theory, individuals should capture at least some of the value they create. This afterall is the point of property systems, to reward those that create value with proper legal protection and ownership over their creations and inventions. Yet on the internet, property rights are actively discouraged.

Copyright law cannot empower individuals in their digital lives because the foundation of the internet was built on licensing. There are two distinct problems caused by adopting copyright as the dominant property type structure on the internet. First, most personal data cannot be copyrighted for the simple fact that it’s not a creative work; applying the rules that we use for creative works wouldn’t easily apply to (say) search history. Second, if you create digital work or information within these digital platforms, by their terms of service, they reserve the rights to make or sell future copies and even create derivative works from your asset. The ability to make derivative works is an immensely valuable exclusive right reserved for the copyright owner! (This is why, for example, Disney lobbies so hard to extend copyright terms.)

Within the current digital environment individuals are renters — seldom owners — regulated to renting rules. Big companies aim to build network growth for themselves by locking down your personal data and assets. They do everything in their legal power to reserve as many rights and control points as possible over your data. Big companies make money by tapping into the enormous amount of “free” information created by individual internet users, bundling it together and selling it to the highest bidder.

Most governments are not helping, either. Rules around how data can be owned, shared, and used are rare to nonexistent. And because of this, individuals are losing out.

When individuals own property, immense value is unlocked for everyone.

Data is the “oil” powering the digital economy. Data is the next major asset class. How much value can be unlocked for the world at large if individuals had property rights over data? That is unknown. But history can give us an idea:

The ability to privately own land gave birth to the agricultural revolution. This, we call real property. We know well how the rules of real property work: we can buy a home, rent it out, and bestow our valuable property to our heirs when the time comes.

When individuals forced the democratization of the ownership of ideas and inventions, after a brief period of time, the industrial revolution emerged. The legal framework of Intellectual property unlocked immense value for individuals and businesses alike by creating an entirely new economy.

Now, with data, we are in a dark age; individuals have no property rights. We have lost our freedom to benefit from the most important economy the world has ever seen. The Bitmark system was created to provide a legal and economic framework for digital property.

Digital property will level the playing field for who can achieve success online — creating new avenues for wealth, prosperity, and achievement on the Internet that are not currently possible for the vast majority of people.

The movement to restore freedom in our digital lives has already begun. Last month, we partnered with IFTTT to release a simple tool for digital estate planning. Subscribe to our newsletter and we will keep you updated about our progress transforming the internet into a new system built on individual freedom and empowerment.

By Bitmark Inc. on August 11, 2017.

Defining Property in the Digital Environment. Part One.

A Brief History of Property

The evolution of property.

While physical goods are protected by a long history of private property rights, digital assets are, to date, essentially unownable. In this three-part series of blog posts we examine and propose solutions to the current problems of digital ownership by retracing the history of property in the West. We argue that the establishment of property rights for real property and intellectual property has decreased negative externalities and fueled the major socioeconomic revolutions of the modern world. Similarly, the digital environment’s most pressing negative externalities — from current epidemics of security breaches to rampant online piracy to the privacy intrusions inherent in mass surveillance — can be improved by the introduction of digital property rights. What is needed is a trustworthy, secure, and enduring property system that is flexible enough to incorporate digital properties into any community’s broader property rights traditions. As a solution, we propose Bitmark, a blockchain-based property system for the digital environment that expands and strengthens the Internet’s essentially decentralized, open, and transparent ethos. The ability to establish ownership claims to digital assets — of well-understood forms of intellectual property such as music, movies and books but also for emergent and increasingly critical ones such as computer code, digital art, user-generated data and metadata — will transform many of the 21st century’s largest negative externalities into a new asset class capable of powering the next economic revolution.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984

On July 17, 2009, Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that their 1984 ebooks, which they had paid for and thought they owned, had mysteriously disappeared. Amazon had remotely deleted the book overnight and credited customers’ accounts for the purchase price. We have been led to believe that digital goods are like physical goods, only better. Yet this case proved otherwise. If Amazon had sneaked into its customers homes in the middle of the night, taken some books off their nightstands, and left a little cash behind, they would have been accused of breaking and entering, trespass, and theft. How could a company headquartered in a country that champions individual property rights even consider such an Orwellian scheme, let alone get away with it?

The reason is simple: ownership of digital goods is nothing like ownership of physical goods. The underlying causes of this difference are complex, and unwinding the mess requires a return to the history of property and its first principles so that we may gain a clearer view of the specific problems plaguing the digital environment. We will use the general term digital environment to describe the multitude of interconnected computer software spaces, whether localized to personal devices or spread across the wider Internet and Internet-of-Things, through which digital assets circulate in all their various forms. From this vantage point, we will discuss the kind of property system that is needed — not only to remedy the current problems — but to provide a sustainable foundation upon which the larger economy can continue to move forward and thrive into future generations.

Historically, Western economic progress has been pushed forward by two all-encompassing legal frameworks that followed parallel trajectories at different times: private property and intellectual property.

The Rise of Property

Historically, Western economic progress has been pushed forward by two all-encompassing legal frameworks that followed parallel trajectories at different times: 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 actually have a legal definition until the 17th century when the term entered popular parlance in reference to land ownership. Monarchs awarded 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 landlords.

Starting in the 12th century, certain commoners undertook the radical enterprise 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 the land as well as to 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 nobility, and legislation was proposed to counteract the process. But Parliament faced a major dilemma. Enclosed land improved agricultural productivity to such a degree that significantly fewer farmers were needed. In fact, the migration of these displaced commoners to cities provided much of the labor force fueling the Industrial Revolution that was making England so powerful at the time. After weighing the various political pressures, Parliament sanctioned large-scale land reform in 1801, thereby ushering in the British Agricultural Revolution and unleashing a powerful new catalyst in the form of individual private property rights for land ownership.

The evolution of intellectual property followed a similar trajectory. As with land, early Europeans tended to view knowledge as a kind of commons. All human understanding was ultimately an expression of God’s divine ingenuity and therefore was collectively held by everyone. However, in the same way that monarchs had awarded gifts of land titles to friends of the Crown, patents and copyrights emerged in the form of royally sanctioned monopolies. Patents conferred exclusive monopolies over specific markets or commodities, such as starch and salt. Copyrights conveyed the exclusive right of publishers to print and censor literary works. The Crown was so bold in its issuance of patent grants that commoners eventually revolted in 1624 and forced Parliament (again) to intervene and restrict patent awards to “projects of new invention” whose protections were only enforceable for a limited number of years. Shortly after, Parliament stepped in again to transform copyright protections from private legal privilege into a public law grant that was vested in individual authors rather than in publishers.

Private property rights for land ownership enabled any commoner to become the king of his own castle and protected the freedom to improve one’s “lot in life”.

This synergy of private and intellectual property rights catapulted Western societies out of the darkness of feudalism and into an era of unprecedented economic progress and prosperity. Private property rights for land ownership 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 anyone to amass tremendous wealth through individual ingenuity and invention as a reward for creating something valuable to society. Both types of property secured a new form of sovereignty for individuals and together provided the necessary climate for the full flourishing of the Industrial Revolution, in which new mechanical inventions eased the burden on all humanity and increased the individual level of wealth and wellbeing across all classes.

The Need for Digital Property Rights

The enabling factor for this seismic social shift was the nascent realization that resources held in common are susceptible to inefficient use as well as to an inequitable depletion. This degradation of shared resources is caused by parties wishing to maximize individual gains at the expense of the collective, a condition often referred to as the tragedy of the commons. Present-day economists understand tragedies of the commons as the result of negative externalities, which are costs involuntarily incurred by parties external to an economic transaction. For example, air pollution from a factory is a negative externality if a factory does not pay to pollute the shared resource of clean air so that the larger society must bear the costs of the resulting damage to human health and the environment.

When properly implemented, property rights enable societies to convert tragedies of the commons into thriving new markets.

The economic solution to the problem of externalities is to “internalize” them by assigning property rights, such as carbon emission credits for the right to pollute the air. This understanding of the ability to internalize externalities via property rights was demonstrated in 1960 by the economist Ronald Coase, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for work in which he showed that, in markets where there are externalities, assigning property rights allows the markets to value the externalities via private bargaining, assuming bargaining costs are low and property rights are clearly defined. Containerizing externalities via property rights transforms a complex social problem into a relatively straightforward business decision: the cost of the right to create an externality versus the cost of changing the business to avoid creating the externality in the first place. When properly implemented, property rights enable societies to convert tragedies of the commons into thriving new markets.

Our inability to clearly assign property rights in the digital environment has resulted in a catastrophic mess of externalities — a 12-trillion-gigabyte primordial soup of digital data as wide and as deep as the Internet itself and doubling in size every two years. In tandem, the repeated epidemics of centralized data breaches, mass surveillance, and state-sponsored incursions on privacy attest to the increasing negative externalities and prevalence of abuse. As with previous property revolutions, the most effective way to safeguard and develop undervalued resources is to establish property rights for them. What is needed is a property system for the digital environment that brings real property rights to digital assets, thereby transforming them from a growing social liability into an unparalleled new property class capable of fueling the larger global economy.

In part two of the series we’ll delve into property rights and privacy rights.

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By Bitmark Inc. on February 15, 2017.