A blockchain for art provenance and chain of custody

This week another blockchain entered the fray. It is called BigChainDB and it has been developed by the folk at ascribe.io.

I have been interested in their work for a while. ascribe is a registry of digital art. Their aim is to provide creators of digital works with a means of creating individual, registered versions of their work that can then be sold, loaned or given away, just as if they were physical copies. Users of their platform can basically have a demonstrable chain of ownership of their digital creations.

ascribe have been using the Bitcoin blockchain as an art registry and a means to create the chain of custody. A reference to a piece of digital content is inserted in the Bitcoin blockchain, and every time the piece changes hands, a new bitcoin transaction is created with a reference to what has happened. By reading the Bitcoin blockchain you can trace the ownership history of the piece.

But as Troy McConaghy, one of the ascribe developers said to me, the small amount of storage that the Bitcoin blockchain allows in a transaction (40 bytes) was enough to do certain things, but not many others.

“We can store a reference to a piece, but we cannot, for example, store the piece itself in the Bitcoin blockchain”, he said. Apart from that, the Bitcoin blockchain is slow, and can only really be queried by having a copy of the whole thing, he added.

“So we were looking for something that might be better for our own use case and started prototyping around that”.

Enter BigChainDB, the solution they came up with and have now made publicly available. As McConaghy explains, BigChainDB has some of the characteristics of other blockchains: it is immutable and it is public (even though it can store private data, if it is encrypted before sending it). They also claim it is lightning fast, able to store large amounts of data, and that it can be queried without having to download a copy of the whole thing first.

So now, they can store not just a reference to a work of art, but potentially the work itself in their own tamper-proof storage.

Where it does differ hugely from the Bitcoin blockchain is in the fact that it is not a totally trust-less environment. Unlike the Bitcoin ecosystem, a BigChainDB instance will be run and administered by a group of interested parties, who will set the rules about how data is verified and inserted and how the fees for doing that work will be apportioned. So different instances will be governed differently and the trust you have in the data of each one will depend on the trust you have in the people or organisations running it. For ascribe, the issue of trust was less of an overriding factor as that of size, speed and ease of access. A version of BigchainDB allowing for untrusted nodes is something they may do in the future, if there’s enough demand.

McConaghy says they are currently building the first instance of BigChainDB with other organisations and will announce this partnership later on this year. I’ll be interested to see what this is, and whether other businesses choose to work with BigChainDB.