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Why blockchains won't revolutionize publishing (kevindangoor.com)
42 points by dangoor on April 21, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

If I've learned anything from being wrong about crypto-tech for years, it's that proving negatives like this is really really hard, and it's typically the wrong way to approach a new technology.

There's really nothing to gain from nay-saying a new space like this, tbh. Much better to take the attitude of "hmm, I'm skeptical, but let's see where this goes, let me try it a bit, someone convince me why X is useful." Because if you're wrong, you'll find out sooner.

> There's really nothing to gain from nay-saying a new space like this, tbh.

Dismissing a new technology is not helpful. But I think it's valuable for people that understand the tech to debunk proposed uses of technology that are not things the tech actually does. This is closer to how I see the article.

In what I see as the current big 3 - quantum computing, AI, and blockchain - there is a parallel imaginary business world claiming things they can do that at best are misunderstandings and at worst are effectively scams to get consulting money. People who understood what the tech is actually doing should not shy away from clarifying what it does and make it harder for the snake oil salesmen to do their thing.

its not proving negatives; blockchain needs to prove why on earth it's better than what already exists in the publishing space. I don't see why a smart contract in this specific instance is better than using the traditional legal system. The article gives plenty of good reasons why not; its up to blockchain people to tell us why to bother in the first place.

Blockchains have been around for 13 years now and have yet to show a real use case beyond a bogus speculative "asset" with no intrinsic value.

By "bogus speculative asset", you mean "store of value asset", unless you are also implying that the $10tr gold market, including the gold stored by central banks across the world, are also bogus speculative vehicles.

I really tried that. But to this day I have not heard a convincing argument for what Blockchain is useful for beyond cryptocurrencies.

And when I see the discussions about Blockchain in the general public nobody asks for proof for statements like "It creates trust. It's safe, it's the future, etc ...".

So by taking a rather radical stance ("it will not revolutionize anything") you at least create a counter narrative.

Its biggest use case has and always will be accountability.

I'm not familiar with any of this stuff other than surface level reading.

Can you expand on use cases? Just interested

Lets consider the case of Allen Dean Foster. He had a contract with Lucas Arts regarding royalties for star wars novelizations.

Fast forward 20+ years and Disney buys Lucas Arts and decides to stop paying royalties to Mr. Foster. How is this improved by Blockchains or smart contracts?

Well let's say that the revenue for those novelizations all ran through a DAO (this is a naive simplification, but bare with me), and that DAO was programmed to export X% of the revenue to Disney's wallet, and Y% to Mr. Foster's.

Disney wouldn't be able to undo this later arbitrarily in this example, it's just enforced by the very fact the revenues are being collected by the smart contract.

Again, simplification, but the point is these technologies actually can help with some of these issues, but not simply by taking the existing way of doing things and just "doing it better", but rather by re-imagining how payments are collected, how content is accessed, etc.

It's a larger picture for sure, and this technology is in it's infancy.

> Disney wouldn't be able to undo this later arbitrarily in this example

Simply stop revenue from running through a DAO. That's actually more or less what Disney did in that case ; they simply moved the books to another publisher.

The DAO is the distributer of the intellectual property. The DAO receives payments directly from the customer and redistributes the revenue.

But sure, a company as big as Disney could setup an alternative distribution system and market it. So presumably a DAO for publishing would not be too effective if it represented only a single publication. But if you had a DAO that distributed a large number of works, then it would get progressively harder and harder for any single company to subvert it.

The issue with that specific topic is that the DAO you describe would actually run against the right holders' interests, and therefore, they would have no interest in promoting or using it in the first place.

In that specific situation, it would be against Disney's interests to agree to using it.

Fair point. What interest is there beyond the revenue distributed by the DAO? Disney's interest is in marketing the DAO so that customers purchase from it, the authors have an interest in producing content to get marketed.

What would Disney be against that?

> Disney's interest is in marketing the DAO so that customers purchase from it

There is little chance that having comics paid through the DAO would make new customers. The authors have an interest in the thing considering the event we're discussing, sure, but authors rarely get to choose their terms.

Disney, as an IP holder, or publishers, currently are in a situation of power, and it would be foolish for them to pay into a new system for no tangible benefit.

A lot of the benefits of crypto really come into play as more systems are integrated into the blockchain. If the whole series of payments and services are on the blockchain, you could build a system that is reasonably secured against these types of situations.

>If the whole series of payments and services are on the blockchain, you could build a system that is reasonably secured against these types of situations.

I'm not intending to be snarky here, but statements like these remind me of the phrase "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't."

I have yet to see blockchain provide any tangible value, and in my opinion any future possibilities proposed like from this comment chain will almost certainly be plagued by similar (if not worse) issues.

>I have yet to see blockchain provide any tangible value

What do you define as tangible value? I'm not a crypto bro, but I can see the potential in blockchain, specifically the building blocks nature of smart contracts. A global, decentralized, API that runs on its own "currency" and anyone can interact and build upon, that sounds pretty valuable to me.

I've put a lot of thought into it and have come to the conclusion that I and I'd guess many others would prefer a system that can be adjusted as needed by people and the legal system. For context, I don't have a very high opinion of people or the legal system, either.

So the true meaning of decentralized is "centralized elsewhere" ?

How do you mean? The blockchain itself is decentralized. So if all the systems operate on the blockchain, they are decentralized.

What you're describing is a system centralized around a technology and a few brokers. As network effects kick in, it becomes harder to use alternative systems. The blockchain itself may be decentralized, but there is no guarantee that systems built upon it would be decentralized.

Yeah what I thought

> Disney wouldn't be able to undo this later arbitrarily in this example

I think this is naive as there is no version of this in the forseeable future that wont allow a court to unwind or reassign the physical rights. You'd be left with a DAO that forwarded a percentage of 0.

A court order is not arbitrary. The problem that's trying to get solved is a major corporation using its power to unilaterally perform an adverse action against an individual that may or may not be legal.

The author in this case has very little power to fight Disney; they could try to sue them and spend years and a lot of money to recoup the royalties and potentially fail... but that's a major burden to place on someone.

Alternatively there could be a technology that levels the playing field so that instead of Disney being allowed to act unilaterally, the burden would be on Disney to first seek a court order allowing them to halt royalties and then present it to the author, who can then choose to challenge it in court or comply.

In other words, we don't know if Disney is legally justified to halt royalties, maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But Disney is powerful enough to behave as if they are legally justified and give a huge middle finger to anyone who doesn't have the resources to fight back. The burden should be on the one changing the terms of an agreement to go through the process of establishing the legitimacy of that change, instead of the current system where the more powerful player just does what they feel like until they're forced to do otherwise.

> Alternatively there could be a technology that levels the playing field so that instead of Disney being allowed to act unilaterally,

Such technology does not exist, and none of the proposals I've heard of implement it. I'm not defending Disney at all, I'm saying that if you routed everything through that DAO one day Disney could change to not routing in that way - and we're in the same situation as today. The fallback is the court system, and that wouldn't change.

I mean you can wave your hands about some theoretical system of the future that has address this, but none of them are really actionable.

We agree, that technology does not yet exist which is why Disney can screw people over unilaterally.

>Disney could change to not routing in that way

Yes but the point is that if the DAO comes to represent a large volume of intellectual property, then the DAO becomes valuable in and of itself. If Disney chooses one day to no longer participate that's perfectly fine, another company can come and take Disney's place and distribute whatever movies, books, music is represented by the DAO. DAOs, as they exist today, have mechanisms in place to allow new participants to enter as well as ways to kick out existing participants in much the same way a contract has such mechanisms.

>I mean you can wave your hands about some theoretical system...

This is akin to a thought terminating cliche.

Creative discussions about future technologies are valuable ways to stimulate ideas and I know just personally as a business owner I have benefited tremendously from them. If you don't find them valuable you can choose not to participate in it from the get go, but it's kind of awkward to start a discussion about the future and then turn around and dismiss the conversation as a whole.

Having said that, objecting to this kind of technology by pointing out potential problems and concerns is absolutely valuable and should be welcomed... my only objection is dismissing a conversation altogether whose very nature is exploratory and hence vague and open ended.

> This is akin to a thought terminating cliche.

I disagree, because you trimmed to me the most important part " none of them are actionable".

I find these conversations interesting and sometimes educational, which is great. But the hard part of such a change is generally not technological, so when it evolves hand-waving about potential future technologies and then tweaks to them rapidly becomes less interesting because it avoids the core of the problems.

Technological discussion involving mechanisms to discuss evaluating/exchanging/etc. property right that does not at least try address the fundamental practical sources and control mechanisms of those rights seems doomed to be superficial.

>The problem that's trying to get solved is a major corporation using its power to unilaterally perform an adverse action against an individual that may or may not be legal.

I may be wrong here but if power is the problem and it becomes centralized in a system such as what you're proposing there will inevitably be similar, or worse, situations than the one being discussed. This solution would only expand their opportunity to exploit.

Yes there is a worse outcome from the use of this technology, there's a worse outcome for Disney. How do you see a system that automatically distributes royalties to authors without having to go through Disney as being worse for the authors or better for Disney?

One worse outcome would be a bug in the system like the infamous DAO failure back in 2016. So definitely we need to consider potential problems, but I can't identify any problem in principle from this sytem.

> How do you see a system that automatically distributes royalties to authors without having to go through Disney as being worse for the authors or better for Disney?

Phrased like that, sure, it sounds great — but that's because it's begging the question of how you'd dictate terms to Disney.

Once you start thinking about how that'd work in the real-world, it's obvious why it won't: no buyer needs a particular DAO and major sellers have no advantage to offering their content on a new system unless it delivers tangible benefits for them. That lack of demand and ease of replacement prevents DAOs from getting enough marketshare to be influential and, if it did, you'd either see them switch to a different platform. Think about what happened with Netflix, which had far more loyal users and much greater marketshare, and ask what reason you have to think this would be different.

The fundamental problem is that this is not a technology problem. These are large companies with a massive revenue stream to protect and strong consumer demand. Optional systems which are struggling even to be cost-effective, much less compelling, are not going to disrupt that power imbalance.

You're answer doesn't have anything to do with my question.

The purpose of the DAO isn't for major sellers, it's for authors to pool together their intellectual property so they can derive royalties from it.

>Think about what happened with Netflix

What... exactly happened with Netflix? They're a 250 billion dollar company that's incredibly profitable.

> You're answer doesn't have anything to do with my question. > > The purpose of the DAO isn't for major sellers, it's for authors to pool together their intellectual property so they can derive royalties from it.

The thread you jumped into was talking about a major seller choosing not to pay royalties. Putting your work into a DAO doesn't change that unless you think that that's the only place the major seller could offer that material for sale … which is unlikely.

> >Think about what happened with Netflix > What... exactly happened with Netflix? They're a 250 billion dollar company that's incredibly profitable.

How successful have they been at dictating terms to major players? The major rights-holders have been aggressively setting up their own services rather than giving that much control over distribution to a third-party. They went heavily into their own and foreign content to avoid being so dependent on continued availability of content from the major media companies.

Netflix was paying them a ton of money, too, so now imagine what happens when the pitch is a DAO which is a bit player in the market and the alternative is simply continuing to offer your works on existing popular services which don't have that problem from the company's perspective.

Now, maybe you're saying that if Foster had put his work on a DAO before Disney acquired everything he wouldn't have this trouble. That assumes that he would have found it profitable to do so instead of listing with a major publisher (i.e. someone solves the piracy and exposure problems — bootstrapping services like this is quite hard) but it's also assuming that everyone chooses to stay inside the constraints of an arbitrary system. I think it'd be more likely that, say, you'd just see the content posted on other services and if they're really playing hardball, a bunch of DMCA takedowns to anyone involved with the DAO to prevent residual sales there. There's no plausible path where, say, Amazon, Apple, etc. are going to fold their stores or that a non-trivial percentage of people are going to refuse to buy content which isn't available on the DAO of their choice.

>How do you see a system that automatically distributes royalties to authors without having to go through Disney as being worse for the authors or better for Disney?

Would that such a system worked exactly as intended on paper, I've never seen one that did.

Would this not work because Disney would need to first lock up that all the discounted cash flow money into the contract, which I think they won’t, otherwise there is still no guarantee?

I don't think it is fair to expect the general public to read a Smart contract to understand its guarantees any more than it is for them to read the current legal royalty papers.

In both cases, you end up trusting a third-party (lawyer, website, software) for its interpretation. And even then the final interpretation is upto a different third party (The blockchain VM or the courts).

The customer isn't the one who reads the smart contract or needs to understand it. The customer just pays for a product and receives it.

The smart contract is intended to enforce provisions between an author and a publisher, and one should expect an author to understand how their property will be protected.

I feel like this is a perfect example of a use case we WANT blockchain/smart contracts to solve... but it won't, because there are ultimately many other ways around it.

I have a strong aversion to buying ebook licenses because I worry that a capricious Amazon support person could make my entire library disappear in a moment with no recourse available.

I think a system where I could buy an ebook NFT and that would not only grant me a license to download the ebook, but also authorize third parties to transfer the data of the ebook to me (probably for a nominal fee in crypto) would be cool. Essentially, a legal platform-agnostic torrent system as file store.

I'd be much more interesting in building a digital library if it seemed like it could both have resale value and would serve as a durable mechanism for accessing that information throughout my lifetime and beyond. However, solving that issue requires building an amount of trust that will not come quickly - we are years away from this future at minimum.

FWIW, I put my books on Amazon with DRM turned off, but I get what you're saying. I'm honestly not certain about the state of DRM in the other ebook stores. As I understand it, you actually can back up your ebook library using Calibre, because all DRM systems are breakable.

I think more people are likely to lose access to their crypto wallet that contains their books than Amazon will cut people off from their libraries.

As much as I like the vision you're presenting (and I do! there are real reader wins for that), I'd rather see BookFunnel build a full storefront. They already have their own reader/audiobook player app and keep track of books you've bought. They can transfer those books to your device of choice (Kindle, Nook, etc.), so you're not locked in. Worried about BookFunnel losing your account? None of their books have DRM. They could even make it so you can download your whole library to make a backup.

Thus far, BookFunnel is an author service company. Authors pay them to distribute their books. Adding a storefront would be a big shift, but they really could put together something great.

Of course, adding resale when books don't have DRM is essentially impossible. Which would you rather have? DRM and the ability for the merchant to remove books from your devices, or no DRM but the ability to resell the books?

I don't see how this solves any problems. Ok, so you have a NFT with a license on the blockchain. Now what? You still have to go to amazon.com / kobo.com / [wherever].com and plug your license in to download your book. They still control the keys to the castle.

> but also authorize third parties to transfer the data of the ebook to me

This would give safe harbor for whoever wants to validate my NFT to serve the file to whoever has a valid license, which allow for greater diversity and quantity of hosts.

Seeing a lot of comments in the style of "Blockchain could ...", "there is potential" etc...

Ethereum (which I see as the start of Blockchain beyond Cryptocurrencies) started in 2013. That's almost 8 years ago. At some point you gotta show receipts.

Why would investors of crypto themed startups want or need to see the receipts for the founder's new Tesla?

To me the most promising area of blockchains in publishing is NFTs. The author only spends a couple sentences on them:

NFTs, or something similar implemented without blockchain, may be an interesting niche market, but I don’t see how it could revolutionize publishing. As of today, it looks like many creators who try NFTs don’t earn even a penny.

A lot of revolutions happen when a niche gets bigger and bigger until eventually it's really big. It's pretty early for NFTs and they seem more likely to revolutionize the art market than the publishing market, but these don't seem like great criticisms of NFTs to me. It's small now, and most creators can't make money on NFTs, but those same criticisms would apply to any of the past revolutions in publishing before they happened.

There's just so little funding right now for areas like short fiction. Is it really so unthinkable that NFTs could become the primary funding source for it? Or that in the future something like "new meme development" could become an important, profitable type of publishing, whereas now we just assume that it's done for free.

To be fair, I do think it's more likely that Substack revolutionizes publishing than that NFTs revolutionize publishing, but I think they both have a shot.

I view NFTs as enabling "digital collectibles". NFTs for art is an extension of the fact that there have been art collectors for ages. There _are_ book collectors, but that's a tiny subset of publishing.

For authors who regularly publish short fiction, I'd imagine the patronage model (Patreon) to be a bigger deal than NFTs. Maybe it's a lack of vision, but I just don't see a lot of people wanting to be able to claim "I own the first edition of Story X by Author Y."

Patreon or Kickstarter does seem better for things like a short story. NFTs might make more sense for ultra-short fiction, like something the length of a single funny tweet. Because you can't really sell that on a Patreon, but maybe you could NFT it. But yeah like any of these not-yet-existent things, it probably won't happen.

Honest question about publishing data on the blockchain - let's say some paedo publishes a CP photo on the chain, and even if he gets caught and face the consequences, would LE ban the whole blockchain from the Internet? If enough time passed by, even miners would not be able to fork it or remove it off of the chain.

So at some point having a blockchain ledger on your PC means you have CP on your computer! Would that be basically end of blockchain as we know it?

I've been wondering about this as well. So far there does not appear to be an accepted route to fixing this in BTC, but there are proposals. I've heard (unreliably) that there are already transactions out there containing snippets of data which can be composed into something but I have nothing concrete.

+1. Also it gives LE a beautiful ground for a false flag attack. FBI could inject CP themselves and then come back and ask Congress/lawmakers to ban the blockhain altogether, since now it carries on banned/illegal material.

Omitted are consumer facing use cases. Like this, applied to everything:

"Attestation for kernel patches" https://lwn.net/ml/workflows/20200226172502.q3fl67ealxsonfgp...

Sorry, I honestly don't understand what you're getting at.

Sign original content. Publish signature to blockchain. Verify authenticity by comparing signatures.

I'm most interested in the censorship or in more friendly terms, authenticity gains that blockchain can provide. In a world where works are being revised, "special edition"ed or straight removed from availability, I'm eager for blockchain technology to sidestep these dark patterns.

What precisely is the mechanism by which you think a blockchain would change that? Blockchains are easily censored — trivially so in the case of digital media since the blockchains are too inefficient to host it directly.

The more fundamental problem is adoption: you're talking about things which most people have convenient access to, so there's very limited demand for new distribution systems and that means that anything which doesn't give the rights-holder the ability to yank content will largely be ignored. The number of people who are going to tell their kids they're not watching a Disney movie until it's available on a blockchain is a tiny rounding error of the number of people you'd need to make those blockchains viable.

> the blockchains are too inefficient to host it directly.

True, this needs to be addressed before I can get what I want. In the case of media it's got to be either on-chain or strongly coupled so that once published, an artifact remains available even if comparable artifacts are produced. It probably won't happen top-down, media giants are keen to keep their content in their walled gardens. Journalism might be a good fit to start with.

This seems like a substantially non-trivial problem to solve: hosting files is not free — think about how large a film is even with modern compression — and most copyright holders are concerned with preventing unauthorized copies.

A long-term durable copy requires ongoing money storage and transfer costs which have to come from somewhere but most people aren't going to pay to host something they can't use (due to encryption) or already watched / copied, and anyone trying to sell content is not going to use a service which allows unlimited unpaid distribution.

Blockchain is very experimental. It could be true that it won’t revolutionize even a single aspect of publishing. However what’s great is there are enthusiasts and entrepreneurs experimenting with many novel, unique solutions.

One underappreciated aspect of blockchain tech is the ecosystem it provides. Creating a useful building block is very hard. In addition to the risk of hacks and bugs, simply developing useful software that is efficient within the constraints of a blockchain stack is difficult and time consuming. However once a building block is battle tested and useful, it dramatically increases the utility of the entire system. See Uniswap and how it enables anyone to create a market, and how its AMMs are used in a huge number of other systems.

It would not surprise me if one of the experimental toys in blockchain related to publishing establishes a niche. It’s very hard to predict how this space will go. I wouldn’t count it out.

> Blockchain is very experimental

How so? "Cryptographer David Chaum first proposed a blockchain-like protocol in his 1982 dissertation ... The first blockchain was conceptualized by ... Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008"


AI was first proposed many decades ago, but it's still an experimental technology, because its applications in business are still being developed. I would consider a technology no longer experimental when no startup has raised funds based on an innovation in that area of technology for years. For example, elevator technology is no longer experimental.

Homeopathy dates back to 1796, and is still in that liminal, "being developed" phase. I for one would not actually call it "experimental".

The concept of the internet was formed / fleshed out in the 1960s. I would say it was experimental for a long time afterwards.

Blockchain tech, as far as I can tell, is fully fleshed out. There's really no revolutionary direction I can see it going. It's influential, I'll give it that, but it's about as revolutionary as taking up a gambling habit.

This is a ridiculous statement for anyone even casually following crypto, I'm sorry. There's a plethora of innovations, so many it's hard to track.

Just a few popular ones right now: Layer 2 solutions with smart contracts (Optimism, for example), zkRollups, Stateless smart contract-based chains, proof of stake validation, chain sharding, proof of storage, proof of X (many new consensus algos with various uses being developed).

The list goes on. If crypto were the internet, we're not even at the NSF-net days imo

I'm not so sure about that. There is quite a bit of innovation occurring in this space e.g. multichain interoperability, etc. Now if you are speaking only to the underlying mathematics, then perhaps yes, but certainly not the applications, or larger structures that can be built with these legos

There are some seriously anti-blockchain moderators in this forum. Heavy downvotes for reasonable comments; not showing off what HN could be.

It’s sad that so many detractors lack vision. They look to the past to attack the future.

It could be that the aspect of publishing that will be disrupted is the sense authorship itself. Perhaps blockchain will facilitate the ability for a single work to be generated by a large number of authors, with each contributor being compensated accordingly.

Those authors would still need to come to an agreement about how to split up the earnings, right?

Once they've done that, services like Draft2Digital _right now_ will put their ebooks out into stores all over the world and split up the royalties for them.

The smart contract would establish earnings split based on contribution.

Publishing solves the problem of how to copy information.

Blockchain solves how to move information from one owner to another.

Mathematically copy is an easier problem to solve than move. Physically, move is easier.

> Blockchain solves how to move information from one owner to another.

Only if that information is completely contained in the blockchain, and even then only in a de-facto way.

Check out some of the experiments the users of Mirror are running. They have used Mirror to crowdfund their writing, raising almost 75 ETH so far, and are also selling NFTs to sustain their writing practices.

- $ESSAY: https://j.mirror.xyz/uVGCCwwm3k341lPpxaJmHTZROESVse9Pe_rmbiu...

- $VALUE: https://coopahtroopa.mirror.xyz/b3_zJsOv8vvvJsaOKyCM-KcCeA_z...

- $GENERALIST: https://generalist.mirror.xyz/1T0h7VGDcECJuifK4TPDfRoUQ3zaO_...

- $NOVEL: https://emily.mirror.xyz/0AFENlMKv9amUC1OJIZY26udpISw_raXkoE...

(Disclaimer: I am on the Mirror team.)

How is this better than Kickstarter?

Someone can put up a Kickstarter and say that "people who pledge at level X will have their name in the acknowledgements. Pledge at level Y and you'll get your name in a footnote in one of the chapters."

In fact, I think there _have_ been Kickstarters for books where the author offered to write high-pledgers into the story in some fashion.

A little odd choice for marketing your project. This is definitely not an article that's positive towards blockchain.

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