Can blockchain help publishers better manage rights?

Photo of Brian O'Leary

Brian O’Leary is executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a US-based trade association that works to create a more informed, effective, and efficient book industry supply chain. He oversees the work BISG does to disseminate information, create and implement standards, conduct research, and grow membership from companies working throughout the supply chain.

O’Leary is also the author of research reports on: the use of metadata in the book industry supply chain; territorial rights in the digital age; and best practices in digital exports. He has studied the impact of free content and digital piracy on paid content sales and was the editor and primary contributor on a study of the use of XML in book publishing, two reports published by O’Reilly Media.

Brian O’Leary will be speaking at Tech Forum 2018 in a session called Blockchain and Building the Future of Information Management and Sharing.

Earlier this year, the rights committee of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) published the results of a survey conducted among rights professionals in the US market. The white paper came to the following conclusions:

  • The importance of rights transactions is growing as demand increases across international markets for both English-language and translated works.
  • Failure to collect rights revenue is a growing problem as transaction volume grows and the systems in place to track agreements fail to keep up.
  • More than half of those responding to the survey agreed that their organization is “currently missing out on meaningful rights revenue” as a result of problems identifying rights holders and clearing rights.
  • Paper-based workflows and reporting are costly and ineffective, characterized by disconnected systems and a lack of standard approaches.
  • The confusion about who controls which rights has grown worse, particularly for backlist, acquired and divested works, and imprints.

It’s a daunting list of challenges. Not surprisingly, the committee heard from both rights holders and rights buyers that they are looking for technology and workflow solutions that address multiple parts of the rights supply chain.

We’re working now to map the solutions offered by providers to the needs of rights holders and rights buyers. That’s important work, as it potentially gives the people who buy and sell rights the tools that streamline their work.

But we’re also asking: “Is this the only way to improve the way we manage rights?”

Blockchain technology and rights

By design, publishing rights are highly fragmented. The mantra for rights has long been, “Acquire broadly, sell (license) narrowly.” A publisher may buy world rights, publish in a limited number of markets, and sell other publishers the right to publish in the markets they have not yet served.

Or, a publisher may acquire world rights in a single language, and the right to modify a work — translate a book, for example, or convert to a screenplay — may be reserved by the author or an agent. While there are templates, contracts vary in some way for almost every book, with the particulars stored in files that are often scanned to PDF or still maintained in paper forms, accessible by a limited staff.

The rights solutions that BISG has studied help publishers track rights, but they are currently less effective at helping publishers sell rights in an increasingly global marketplace. In recent years, online marketplaces like PubMatch, IPR License, Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink, and others, have begun to offer rights holders and rights sellers the opportunity to interact online.

Even with these marketplace options, most transactions must still be managed by staff on both sides of the deal, limiting the extent to which rights sales can grow.

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In November, Simon-Pierre Marion explained that blockchain technology “offers a public, distributed database (analogous to a general ledger) on a network.” Sellers and buyers interact directly, completing transactions that are captured as part of the ledger and updated for all of the users on the network.

In this regard, blockchain technology could broaden the marketplace for publishing rights. The current model forces rights buyers to investigate a work extensively before they can know if a particular right is available. The existing approach also places a significant burden on rights holders to answer inquiries that may not lead to a sale.

Promise and peril

Direct engagement offers promise, but implementing a blockchain solution would take both time and expense. A new approach would also change the roles traditionally served by members of the rights community.

In particular, a successful use of blockchain technology to address rights management would require changes in the following areas:

  • Digitally available data: Contracts, territories, previous sales, and related data would have to be made available on the network.
  • Clear rules of engagement: Rights buyers would need to be qualified in some way, so that rights sellers can be confident that their new partners are the right ones.
  • A path forward for rights staff: Knowledge of rights is the coin of the realm in today’s market. Understanding how to move that knowledge into a digital realm may be the new requirement.

These aren't trivial challenges, particularly in an industry that has historically struggled to create and maintain clean data and complete records. But, the promise could be a rising tide for rights holders, who will find new and greater demand for their content, and for rights buyers, who will be able to choose from a much wider array of titles and licenses.

If you'd like to hear more from Brian O'Leary and about blockchain, register for Tech Forum, March 23, 2018 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for our mailing list to get all of the conference updates.