Microtransactions, Blockchain, and the Future of Publishing

While you may not be familiar with the term “Blockchain,” I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of bitcoin. The crypto-currency is getting a lot of attention lately, as some early adopters and investors are seeing massive returns.

Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin, the system used to secure the currency. Rather than belaboring the details of how Blockchain works, suffice it to say that the system creates a secure ledger for the tracing of individual pieces of content or data. This article from Harvard Business Review goes into more detail – The Truth About Blockchain. Wikipedia also features an extensive and well-sourced entry on Blockchain.

How does this impact publishing?

The most significant impact of Blockchain technology for publishing will be on intellectual property. From the Harvard Business Review:

With blockchain, we can imagine a world in which contracts are embedded in digital code and stored in transparent, shared databases, where they are protected from deletion, tampering, and revision. In this world, every agreement, every process, every task, and every payment would have a digital record and signature that could be identified, validated, stored, and shared. Intermediaries like lawyers, brokers, and bankers might no longer be necessary. Individuals, organizations, machines, and algorithms would freely transact and interact with one another with little friction. This is the immense potential of blockchain.

Imagine a world where you don’t need to publish to codify your work? With Blockchain, that becomes a very real possibility. All content can be claimed and attributed to the owner in a way similar to copyright but without the reactionary legal apparatus. Blockchain protects the content owner from the very start.

For academics, this means the possibility exists to claim ownership over content without ceding any control over to the publisher.

Blockchain, like any technology, will take some time to fully evolve and reach mainstream use. Assuming it ever does. The technology itself has been around since 2008, as part of the initial Bitcoin offering. But with the success of Bitcoin in recent years, we have a precedent on which to consider Blockchain and how it may impact content ownership in the future.

Looking to the Future

The advances in content ownership and control technology will continue to offer authors, both academic and fiction, the opportunity, and means to retain their work and realize their fullest potential. From a content creator’s perspective, what demands the most attention is the ability to claim their work and ensure the ability to disseminate that work on their own. Think about how musicians are already doing this through tools like SoundCloud and BandCamp. These online services allow musicians to present and share their work at low costs and realize the profit directly.

Written content, particularly in academia, may not follow the same path. Any researcher or published educator can tell you that publishing with an established publishing entity has unique value. That publisher now has a vested interest in the author’s success.

Whether emerging technology changes this dynamic or simply expands the options for non-traditional publishing has yet to be seen. But if Elsevier’s move toward content aggregation over true publishing is an indicator, academic publishers may be shifting toward a broader model. This may signal an awareness from these content distributors that technology like Blockchain is not only on the way but likely to have a major impact on the current model.

Currently, non-academic publishers are carefully considering and trying to understand what Blockchain might mean for them. The Alliance of Independent Authors for one, are actively trying to understand the role of Blockchain for authors. What academics, educators, and research must do now is be aware of these changes as they trickle into the industry.


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