2.2.2022

Remix in Web3: Art, Reproduction, and Copyright.

When John Phillip Sousa challenged the US copyright system in 1906, he argued two primary ideas: one, the importance of "amateur" participation in art/culture that enables the production of culture in addition to consumption; and two, the importance of limiting the reach of copyright regulation to keep this amateur creativity free. These are what Lawrence Lessig called "Sousarian sensibilities" in his book Remix.

While the technologies that enabled the mechanical reproduction of artwork in the twentieth century changed our relationship with culture, I'd argue that as we enter the world of "web 3.0," a new form of digital reproduction of artwork has been equally as disruptive in the twenty-first century. In particular, the transparency and accessibility of information on the blockchain disrupt the notion of provenance, and the universality of tokens as currency (as opposed to fiat) even enables the collection of royalties on secondary market sales of artworks from anywhere in the world. This has all been made possible because provenance and the origination of ideas can be so indisputably proven and properly attributed with blockchains.

The Blockchain

If done correctly, as artists release new artwork, whether it be physical or digital, a record should be kept on-chain. The blockchain is immutable, meaning data from the past cannot be changed, only "built upon" by adding future records. So if an artwork is created by the artist, then transferred to a buyer, then gifted to a friend, and resold to a neighbor, instead of "rewriting" who the current owner is, it instead retains a log of all the past transactions. The current owner is simply the latest destination of the artwork. In essence, it's very similar to an old-timey library book log, only anyone from anywhere in the world (with an internet connection) can access and audit the records without being in physical possession of the artwork.

This radical transparency invents a new affordance of digital or "phygital" (paired physical + digital) artwork: royalty collection from secondary sales, hard-coded into the smart contract in a way that it is automatically credited to the artist's original "wallet," and impossible to evade. This means that artists no longer have to make their living exclusively from primary sales and licensing for the first time in history.

Example: A GenZ artist Danny Cole, created Creature World with 7% royalty collected on secondary sales. While primary sales netted the project 800 ETH (10,000 Creatures with a 0.08 ETH mint price), the secondary sales on LooksRare's platform alone (less than a month old at the time of writing) has yielded the project 6.3 ETH (7% * 90 ETH total trade volume). This is a number that will only increase with time, higher artwork value, and further cultural prominence.

As for remix theory, this is exciting because it further destabilizes the idea of "originality" in artworks. If priced correctly, artists should desire remixes, because every derivative project that pays homage to the original further cement the original collection in culture and history, and the value directly ties back into the original artworks. The pricing of the artwork matters less than the liquidity and volume of exchange, from a purely financial perspective. This is why we're seeing an increase of projects either releasing artwork into the public domain or transferring full commercial rights to the current token holder.

Final Words

The blockchain is an elegant Sousarian approach to a broken copyright system that, at some point in the past century, no longer fostered a robust public domain that serves amateur creative freedom. We still have long ways to go, but I'm excited that we're closer to a commercial and scalable solution.


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