blockchain your problemsNotary services, which provide low cost ‘proof of existence’ for a document at a particular point in time, are one of the fastest growing uses of Bitcoin. They also have a very wide range of different uses, with the potential to have a revolutionary impact on many different areas from land registration to contract law to marriages and diplomas.

One interesting use for this technology is to provide a cheap, or even in some cases totally free way to gain copyright protection for creative works.

Can you legally copyright something using the blockchain?

The issue of what legal protection you can hope to gain for your work by registering it on the blockchain is somewhat complicated, but must always start from this simple fact: your work is already copyright protected as soon as you create it. Probably the number one myth regarding copyright is that you have to register your work to gain protection; in actual fact, international law protects your intellectual property regardless of whether or not you have registered it with the relevant national government body.

Depending on what country you live in you may (probably will) have to officially register your copyright claim prior to taking any kind of legal action against anybody who infringes it, but you do not necessarily have to do this before the infringement takes place.

You may, however, need to be able to prove that you are the original creator of your work and have a valid right to legal protection for it. This is where blockchain technology can offer a cheaper and easier alternative traditional registration processes, which can take months to complete and may involve expensive legal bills. By digitally registering your artwork, music or writing, you may be able to ensure that you are able to prove your legal rights to the work, but this method is not perfect – please make sure you understand the drawbacks and limitations explained below before choosing this method.

The Poor Man’s Copyright

The use of blockchain notary services for this purpose is an extension of the idea of ‘poor man’s copyright’. This idea has been around for a while, and is often presented as an almost free way to copyright something. All you have to do, so the story goes, is to post yourself a copy of your work and then keep it in a sealed envelope. If you ever end up in court over an infringement of your intellectual property you can then present your sealed envelope, which will have a postmark showing the date your posted it to yourself and will therefore prove that you were the original creator of the work.

Unfortunately, there seem to be no examples of this method ever having been successfully used in court, and most experts will ‘debunk’ it as something of an urban myth. The main problem is that it is easy to forge this kind of ‘poor man’s copyright’. For example, you can steam open an envelope, insert new contents, and then neatly reseal it. It is also within the realm of possibility that somebody could find a way to add their own fake postmark to an envelope. Because of this, your envelope wouldn’t really provide solid proof of anything and could certainly be challenged in court.

Another problem is that in today’s world a lot of creative work is published instantly over the internet. If you have to wait for your work to go through the postal system and get back to you before publishing then this may introduce an unacceptable delay, and if you do not wait then somebody could easily steal your work as soon as it hits the internet and publish it themselves before the postmark date.

Many experts, in seeking to debunk the ‘myth’ of the poor man’s copyright will also tell you that copyright cases that end up in court rarely involve disputes over who created the work anyway: they will usually revolve around things like the definition of ‘fair use’. If somebody outright copies your whole work and tries to pass it off as their own, they will usually back down before going to court to avoid the hassle and expense. Personally I do not see this as an argument against using this method, as the same logic could just as well be applied to using the official copyright registration process.

These experts may also point out that in most countries you need to officially register your copyright claim before you are allowed to take any kind of case to court. Once again, I do not see this is an argument against using this method. The poor man’s copyright was never intended as a comprehensive alternative to official registration, just as a way to put off having to go through the time and expense of the official registration process until or unless you really need to.

How to make the poor man’s copyright work using blockchain technology

Blockchain notary services are able to solve two of the main problems with the poor man’s copyright. Firstly, they create a permanent record which is impossible to forge. Secondly, they can be applied almost instantly – a matter of minutes rather than days – and for little or no cost.

They do this by creating a ‘hash’ of your work and storing it on a kind of distributed database, such as the Bitcoin blockchain. This hash is the result of a mathematical process which creates a string of characters (the hash) which is unique to your work. The maths behind this cannot be done in reverse, so the hash that is created cannot be used by other people to view or copy your work, but it can be used later to prove that the person who created the hash was in possession of the work in question at the time it was created.

If this hash is stored on the Bitcoin blockchain, it is as secure and as resistant to forgery as bitcoins themselves, and should therefore be impossible to challenge in court.

The limitations of using the blockchain for copyright protection

If you successfully register your copyright claim then, in case there is ever a dispute, the court has no choice but to recognize your ownership of the intellectual property (unless this registration is challenged in a separate case). If you wait until after an infringement has taken place before applying for registration, then the process will be more complicated and there is no guarantee that you will be successful, even if you do have your digital poor man’s copyright as proof.

Getting your work properly registered will always provide you with the best level of protection, so for high value work this is always going to be the best thing for you to do. The kind of methods described here should only be considered in cases where the cost and time requirements for registration are prohibitive; more information about that in the next section.

Also, as stated earlier in the article, there are very few legal cases in which the rightful owner of this kind of intellectual property is disputed. If you want to protect your intellectual property then the most important thing that you should do is to attach a copyright notice to your work – this is more important than taking additional measures such as the poor man’s copyright. You do not need to have gone through the registration process in order to be able to use a copyright notice, because your intellectual property is granted legal protection automatically as soon as you create it. Simply adding a © symbol and perhaps a line of text asserting your rights will often be enough to put off any potential thieves. If your work is stolen, then contacting the person who did it and simply asking them to stop will often work, as most people do not want to go through the hassle and expense of fighting a case in court.

Copyrighting Ideas and the Poor Man’s Patent

It is worth noting at this point that copyright protection only applies to creative works, for example: writing (including programming code), artwork (including photographs), music and so on. You cannot, as some people believe, get legal protection for an idea. Some limited protection may be gained for your idea in a roundabout way, for example you can get protection for a written proposal or business plan, but not for the idea itself.

In addition, anybody thinking that they can use the methods described here to protect an invention will be sorely disappointed. Patent law in most countries, including the United States and Europe, will only grant protection from the date you apply for a patent through the official channel, not the date on which the work was created, so a ‘poor man’s patent’ would be of no use at all.

Potential uses for blockchain copyright protection

It is really down to the individual reader to decide whether this method is appropriate for them or not, but here are some examples of what I think are the most promising uses:

  • Copyrighting a blog post: The cost of official registration would often eat up most, all, or even more than all of the revenue generated by an average blog post or other piece of website content. At the same time, however, this kind of writing is by far the most likely to fall prey to copyright violations. Having solid proofs of ownership over your written content may help you to resolve any problem that you may have without going to court, as well as to successfully register your work if you ever do need to go to court.
  • Images shared on social media: An image shared on Facebook or Instagram may be copied and reposted on another site within seconds. This may make it impossible to prove that you were the original owner of that image. But for professional photographers, being able to protect their work is often vital to their ability to earn a living. Registering every photo prior to publishing online will almost always be too time-consuming and expensive.
  • Business Proposals: This is another example where conventional registration is rarely used due to the amount of time that it would take. A cheap and instant alternative can give some protection to firms worried that a competitor may copy and undercut a proposal or business plan.

As you can see, these are all example of situations in which traditional methods do not work and would not normally be used, rather than situations in which the poor man’s copyright is chosen as an alternative to traditional methods. If you can register your work, you probably should.

How To Copyright Your Work for Free Using Blockchain Technology

There are quite a few notary services using blockchain technology today. They are all very easy to use and do not require any previous experience with Bitcoin. Here are three that I recommend:

  • Bitproof: A free service which includes the ability to automatically connect to external services such as Google Drive and Dropbox.
  • Blocknotary: An iPhone app for the easy notarization of photos using Bitcoin and the Factom protocol.
  • Stampery: Offers up to 10 files per month for free with automatic connection to third party services and a unique feature that makes it super-easy to notarize all of your emails.
  • NotBot: Short for ‘Notary Robot’ this service is free to use and offers the added security of notarizing your files over two popular and well secured blockchains – Bitcoin and NXT. You don’t even need to log in either, an account is automatically created for you the first time you visit, and you are given a secure link to access it without needing a password any time you want.