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Using blockchain to track media assets securely

Blockchain remains a relatively unfamiliar concept to most people in the broadcast and media industries, writes Steven Bilow, SMPTE Member, volunteer, and contributor. But it has use cases for our industry…

How does it work? 

Blockchain is a distributed data structure that supports creation of a digital ledger and sharing it across a network (or community) of users. Community members use cryptographic hashing algorithms to manage the ledger securely with no central repository or authority.

The digital ledger itself comprises a series of ‘blocks’, or chunks of digital data, arranged in a ‘chain’, or network. Each block stores information about a transaction and the parties involved, as well as a ‘hash’, which is a unique cryptographic code that distinguishes a particular block from every other and actually encodes all previous blocks to ensure traceability. Because this hash value includes all prior transactions, and because this digital ledger is distributed across a network, it is extraordinarily difficult to alter a transaction.

What does this have to do with the media industry?

The default way to create, record, broadcast, and exchange media is now digital. This reality brings about a whole new set of problems surrounding how we reliably, securely, and transparently manage all of the information associated with ownership and use. For example, how does a media asset itself keep track of who owns it, who’s licensed to use it, and who owes whom the royalties for its use?

You can summarise all the security and licensing issues involved in one word: trust. Trust is a key concept when it comes to contracts. Imagine having a giant accounting ledger documenting all your trusted transactions. Now imagine that your ledger falls into the hands of just one bad actor. No transaction is safe. Trust is gone.

But if your ledger is distributed among 1,000 people, and every transaction requires validation from a subset of that group, then a single bad actor has a negligible effect on the whole. And if every transaction is encrypted, the details remain private. Finally, if you include the entire distributed ledger as part of every transaction, then any questionable transaction could be traced all the way back to the beginning of time. In short, you can count on the security and trustworthiness of every transaction. This is the beauty of blockchain.

Given the complexity of digital media, digital contracts, and digital distribution, now is the perfect time for our industry to consider blockchain solutions. Potential use cases for blockchain in media include rights management, royalty tracking and payment, validating the authenticity of an asset such as news footage, tracking content through its entire life cycle, and intellectual property management.

The application of blockchain technology to these use cases will make for simpler, more transparent media and advertising ecosystems. The accuracy of copyright tracking improves, and it becomes easier to distribute appropriate royalty payments. With blockchain documenting the chain of custody and validating every step in the production and distribution process, it will be easier to deter ‘fake news’ and ‘deep fake’ videos.

Perhaps the most compelling benefit of blockchain is that smart contracts can be built securely into transactions for licensed assets. These contracts are essentially computer code, stored in the blockchain, that is capable of performing specific actions under specific circumstances, and effectively eliminating the need for human intervention.

Facilitating secure, automated transactions, blockchain can make media distribution safer, faster, and less prone to piracy. Free from the need to continually monitor contractual agreements and related distributions, organisations can be more efficient in the allocation and distribution of royalty payments. While making illegal file sharing and other copyright infringements much more difficult, blockchain offers a mechanism for better visibility into usage and, ultimately, more flexible and effective monetisation of content.

Many of the organisations using blockchain to add contractual data to content are doing so with the API for Ethereum, which is an open-source, public blockchain-based computing platform designed with smart-contract scripting functionality. (Ethereum is also one of the largest distributed blockchain networks.) But it’s still early days yet for implementation.

Today we are at a point where many media companies are doing exciting research on the challenges and benefits presented by blockchain technology. Some companies do actually use blockchain in practice, but it remains a very new technology. Over time, however, blockchain will solve a variety of security, privacy, validity, and rights issues. Blockchain isn’t the only way to handle these issues. But it is a pretty enticing option both because it uses a hashing algorithm that’s been proven for years as an encryption mechanism and because it is a distributed system that does not force users to trust a central authority. 

Now that we have a way for every transaction to be initiated, concluded, and tracked as a permanent record with a verifiable ownership history, blockchain is well worth considering for large-scale implementations. As the industry really begins its move toward blockchain, smart contracts will be a particular area of focus for standards development. I see it as an extension of the metadata standardisation work that has been ongoing for years.


Current standardisation efforts in process now include ISO 307, a set of standards — in various stages of completion — that cover critical aspects of blockchain and apply generally across all industries. ISO 307 is expected to address terminology and concepts, handling of privacy and protection of personally identifiable information, security risks and vulnerabilities, identity, reference architecture, taxonomy and ontology, legally binding smart contract, and interactions between smart contracts in blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (DLTs).

That National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has a minimum of four projects in progress, and these include “NISTIR 8202 – Blockchain Technology Overview,” “Blockchain for Industrial Applications Community of Interest,” “Enhanced Distributed Ledger Technology,” and the NIST Cybersecurity White Paper.

IEEE and IBU likewise are engaged in ongoing projects, and SMPTE is engaging with different groups that are using and researching blockchain technologies. Recognising that “blockchain is an important technology in securing and auditing the access to and interchange of content in these disruptive times,” the Society’s standards vice president, Bruce Devlin, says that SMPTE soon will announce the results of those discussions. (He also welcomes further communication and engagement with any groups interested in cooperating with SMPTE in this area.)