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U.S. Department of Commerce Discusses Impact of Blockchain Technology on Digital Copyright Registries


Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Commerce hosted a meeting to discuss the future of copyright management, including online registries. The event featured a combination of panel presentations and breakout sessions, which addressed the role blockchain technology and smart contracts, amongst other approaches, could shape the future of copyright registration.

On December 9, 2016, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force (“IPTF”) hosted a public meeting to “facilitate constructive, cross-industry dialogue among stakeholders about ways to promote a more robust and collaborative online marketplace for copyrighted works.” The meeting focused on “the potential for interoperability across digital registries and standards work in this field, and consider[ed] the relevant emerging technologies (e.g., blockchain technology, open source platforms), [and] explore[d] potential approaches to guide their adoption and integration into the online marketplace.”

This meeting is the product of the IPTF’s recent efforts to infuse current government practice with technology. In July 2013, the IPTF released a Green Paper on Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy that discussed economic growth, job creation, cultural development, and how the government can facilitate the further development of a robust online licensing environment. In addition to holding a public meeting in December 2013 with public comments, the IPTF held a public meeting on April 1, 2015, which focused on “the development and use of standard identifiers for all types of works of authorship, interoperability among databases and systems used to identify owners of rights and terms of use, and the possible creation of a portal for linking to such databases and licensing platforms.”

Today’s meeting built on this discussion and included panels on “unique identifiers and metadata” as well as “registries and rights expression languages.” The first panel addressed questions such as “How do you unambiguously identify a work and distinguish it from other works; and how do you assign attributes to that work in a consistent manner (What is it? Who created it or contributed to its creation? Where and when was it created? Who owns it?).”

The second panel addressed “Registries and Rights Expression Languages” and focused on how distributed registries, namely blockchain technology, may be implemented to organize rights ownership information in a standardized way. The panel was moderated by Jim Griffin, Managing Director of Hazen LLC, and consisted of the following panelists:

  1. Bill Colitre, Vice President and General Counsel, Music Reports, Inc.
  2. Greg Cram, Associate Director, Copyright and Information Policy, The New York Public Library
  3. Greg Fioravanti, Vice President, Business Affairs, Discovery Communications
  4. Nathan Lands, CEO, Blockai
  5. Ryan Merkeley, CEO, Creative Commons
  6. Jeff Sedlik, President, PLUS Coalition

The discussion regarding blockchain technology and copyright registries came primarily from Nathan Lands of Blockai, a San Francisco-based company that created an online copyright registry platform. Griffin prefaced his question to Lands with the idea that one approach to an online registry could be by democratizing copyright registration, using the bitcoin blockchain for recording. Specifically, Griffin asked of Lands, “Make the argument that Jeff should be working with you to keep these records on the blockchain.”

Lands responded that, at this time, Blockai is not targeting other companies to join them at this time, but rather individuals who wish to safeguard their creations with copyright protection. “We’re looking to get creators to use the platform. The idea of what we're building is, as soon as the creator creates something, with whatever creator tool they’re using, automatically we kind of notarize on the bitcoin blockchain a record.”

Blockai’s website states that it is democratizing copyright by providing a free alternative to the current registration system because most creators cannot afford to register for and protect their unique work, and provides a general summary of the process required to obtain copyright protection:

  1. Create: Create a piece of digital art, photo or anything that can be copyrighted.
  2. Register: Register your copyright on the blockchain, a public ledger powered by Bitcoin. The record is permanent and immutable.
  3. Receive: Receive a registration certificate with cryptographic evidence that protects your copyright. You own the certificate forever.
  4. Share: Share your creation with peace of mind. You have proof of publication that protects your copyright and copyright monitoring that alerts you when people are using your work.

Whether this alternate system of copyright recording can work parallel to the current one or has the potential to revolutionize how copyright registries operate remains to be seen. The meeting continued in the afternoon with breakout sessions on topics such as smart contracts, blockchain technology, metadata, online registries, and ownership standards, followed by a plenary discussion. While these portions of the meeting were not broadcasted on the live webinar, they signal the U.S. Department of Commerce’s continued acknowledgment of the role blockchain technology can play in the federal government.

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