From register to blockchain

Stationers’ Register entry for Arden of Faversham, from Shakespeare Documented

In the early days of print, the Stationers’ Company in London had a monopoly on publishing. The guild created a register (the Stationers’ Register) that documented publishers’ rights to produce particular printed works. This served as a way to check the authenticity of printed works in a time when unauthorized copies were beginning to proliferate—if they didn’t correspond to the line in the register, they were probably illicit. (“Probably,” because, in practice, not all works were duly registered.)

The system worked well enough for some time, though there were some problems. As Adrian Johns writes in Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, the Crown could supervene the register by way of royal patent—and so the systems of register and patent sometimes were at odds.

Other things that limited the register’s usefulness: It only existed in one place, so it was in practice difficult and costly for people to confirm its contents. And moreover, it was controlled by the Stationers’ Company, and so it could only be trusted to the extent that the company was trusted.

So much for early modernity. As Johns chronicles, concerns about piracy exploded since the time of the Stationers’ Register. And now that we have digital assets, which in principle can be reproduced infinitely, it’s as big an issue as ever.

For any document or piece of information, we need a way to determine whether we can trust it. This stands for both the legitimacy of the document’s production and distribution (as in say, currency and digital music) and its content (as in news stories).

The invention of print led to new forms of and urgency regarding piracy, and the register was one method of dealing with it. Now, with the world wide web, we are seeing this again. And to deal with contemporary piracy (among other issues related to information trust), we’re seeing the rise of a new technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is one of the world’s most exciting new technologies. As the internet revolutionized information sharing and communications, blockchain has the capacity to revolutionize the economy and many of our social systems. You’ve probably heard of bitcoin, which is the first platform built on blockchain technology, and in the coming decades you’re sure to hear of many more. Experts are likening the situation with blockchain to that of the internet protocol, which was invented in the 1970s but didn’t burst through the popular realm until the 1990s—in those terms, some say we’re in 1992.

In brief, a blockchain is a distributed ledger used to record transactions in a verifiable and inalterable way. As described in The Economist‘s briefing, blockchain “is a way of making and preserving truths.” The blockchain is something everyone can refer to, to determine who owns what and where it came from. This goes for digital goods as much as physical ones—the blockchain prevents digital things from being reproduced infinitely. Importantly, when we compare it to the Stationers’ Register, it can be checked for practically no cost, and it doesn’t rely on an external authority as a grounds for trust.

Blockchain is sure to turn any number of industries upside down. If it relies on documentation, change is in the air. The question, though, is in the details. For a smattering, you can check out:

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