Note: a version of this post was first published on the Alliance of Independent Authors‘ Self-Publishing Advice Centre. Their watchdog, John Doppler, added answers and commentary.
It is said that blockchain technologies will revolutionize publishing. The Alliance of Independent Authors has published a white paper about blockchain. The white paper’s authors seem hopeful that blockchain will help authors to reduce their dependency on large vendors. Blockchain may indeed be a wonderful development, but the more I read, the more I find that I have questions and concerns.
One of blockchain’s promises is that it will eliminate piracy. No-one has been able to explain to me just how blockchain prevents piracy, however. We all know that current DRM schemes can be cracked, but it should be noted that this isn’t done by breaking the encryption.
To read the book, the end user has to have a copy of the key. The cracking software finds the key and uses that to create an unencrypted copy of the book. Even with blockchain, the user will need a copy of the key, so what is there to stop software finding that key and using it?
Another promise is that blockchain will allow authors to register their copyright and store that registration on the blockchain, where anyone can access it.
These look a lot like a technical version of the old practice of an author posting a copy of the manuscript to themselves. The US copyright office specifically says that the practice is not a substitute for registering the copyright, so it seems unlikely that a blockchain-based version would have any legal weight.
There is certainly a benefit in open access to the register, but that could be done with a standard database and website. It’s unclear what advantage is gained by using blockchain.
One of the more intriguing promises of blockchain is the idea that a buyer can own their copy of an ebook, in much the same way as they own a paper book. Part of this is the ability to sell it second-hand. The change of ownership would be registered on the blockchain, and the original owner would lose access to the book.
The blockchain book sellers that I’ve been able to investigate in sufficient detail don’t store the actual book files on the blockchain. All that is stored on the blockchain is a token indicating who has access to the book. The book file itself has to be downloaded from a server. This leaves open the possibility of the server being taken offline, and no-one being able to access the book, just as happened in 2019 when the Microsoft ebook store went offline.
Ownership of an ebook implies that it can be read on whatever device the user prefers. Indeed, in the ALLi white paper, the Publica CEO says that “books can be discovered by readers without having to sign in, sign up, or subscribe to any walled garden, or pay anyone except the author.” But a book bought from Publica can only be read on the Publica app.
Bookchain is another company that sells books on the blockchain. In their case, users read the book in a web browser. That is more open than Publica, but it also implies that users will lose access to the book if Bookchain’s web server is taken offline.
I’m not fundamentally opposed to blockchain. It may become as integral to our everyday lives as the web is now. But most articles that discuss blockchain’s potential in the publishing sphere offer lots of promises with little to no detail about how these promises will be delivered, and that makes me wary. I’d love to get answers to the questions I’ve outlined, so if you have answers, please leave them in the comments.