Bruce Pon: Ascribe – An Ownership Layer for the Internet

By Joana Chicau

Bruce Pon presented Ascribe, a project that proposes a solution for artists to control intellectual property by constituting a new “ownership layer“ to the existing structure of the internet.

“Intellectual property is at this moment as valuable as any other physical property in the world. Why isn’t valued and protected as much as the others?”. Bruce Pon connects the answer to the “rules of the digital”, that allow the material to be easily and instantaneously copied, stored, transferred and distributed, without necessarily being credited.

While relating to the technological qualities and networked conditions of the digital, Bruce Pon made a historical reference to one of the early architects of the internet, Ted Nelson. He was an American pioneer of information technology who coined the terms hypertext  and hypermedia and who was the founder of the Xanadu project in 1960. The mission statement of Xanadu envisioned an improvement of the structure of the world wide web: “Today’s popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.” The Project Xanadu then aimed to link two objects by attribute, although due to the expansion and growth in complexity of the internet content it became an impossible mission to connect all its objects. Ten years later Wired magazine published an article called “The Curse of Xanadu”, defining the project as “the longest-running vaporware story in the history of the computer industry”. In 1989, the computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee would then put together the components of the internet as we know it today, by implementing the HTTP – Hypertext Transfer Protocol, providing a one way link, opposed to the interconnected linkage proposed by Ted Nelson. “It’s because of this that the internet is like a Turkish bazar”, claimed Bruce Pon. Series of works are lost and found in the enormous amount of data circulating online, without knowing where it comes from and where it will end.

Bruce Pon believes that the public is willing to engage in different organizational model. A model which would include a Pay < and > earn system, similar to other existing platforms that provide both accessibility to the artwork itself and its license. This way people can pay for the works and artists can earn from their work. This makes it also possible for the consumer to be able to download under legal conditions, without infringing copyright.

We are then introduced to Ascribe, a project Bruce Pon is co-founder of. Ascribe is a management system for intellectual property that makes easy for the public to pay for the artworks and the artist to receive attribution. It follows Ted Nelson’s philosophy of “linking” digital media objects, but now as a tracing method and a record for ownership. Ascribe uses the blockchain technology and a cryptographic ID which binds the creator’s authorship to its digital file, “securing an unbreakable link between the artist and its creation”. Making use of the blockchain as for being a decentralized method that empowers the artist: “the content belongs to you and you control it”, enabling private data to be managed by its owner.
Ascribe is based on three different components: first a registry, second a way to secure legalities, and third a visibility tool. These work in providing a traceable history of the artworks for both the artist to follow their works’ journey,  and for buyers to understand where the works come from.

The internet as a problematic field for exponential dissemination of artworks and the lack of proper attribution and authorship is a major concern for the founders of Ascribe. Pon even states that “every computer is a copy machine, everyday we violate someone else’s copyright over one hundred times”. Instead of trying to fight this fact, the other option could be to try to understand how things are spread: where things go and how they are being used. In this sense, Ascribe promises to offer the solution for universally accessible ownership of digital property , comparable to the world wide web.