First as Snapshot, then as Decentralised Digital Asset

October 2018

Martin Zeilinger is a London-based new media researcher, practitioner, and curator. His work focuses in part on the societal and cultural impact of emerging financial technologies, such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

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In the age of ubiquitous connectivity and seemingly limitless cloud-based storage capabilities, all photographers, whether as amateurs, artists, or professionals, face new and difficult questions regarding their work’s afterlife, which have continued to gain in importance over the last years: what becomes of digital photographs once they begin to circulate online, how can the rights of their creators be protected, and how should the constant churn of online photographs be controlled?

In early 2018, Eastman Kodak Company (the has-been corporate photo giant that once pioneered innovative technologies including mass-market colour photography, but which had to declare bankruptcy in 2012) announced that it was about to provide a solution to these difficult issues. Amid ongoing hype surrounding decentralised networking technologies, the company introduced KodakOne, a blockchain-based platform, and KodakCoin, a bespoke cryptocurrency. Together, KodakOne and KodakCoin would bring order to the maelstrom of photographs circulating online by providing new digital rights management tools that harness the powers of decentralised computing. Using the new technology, any digital photograph – from haphazard selfies to family snapshots and well-composed works of art – could now be traced online and traded as a potentially valuable digital asset.

In this endeavour, Kodak is not alone. From earlier art-tech experiments such as Monegraph and Ascribe to the recently announced blockchain-based photo sharing platform Totem by Chinese Internet giant Baidu, tech developers are racing to find commercial applications for a combination of image authentication, digital rights management, and digital art sales. At a recent Art+Tech Summit organised by the venerable auction house Christie’s in London, Christie’s photography specialist Anne Bracegirdle went as far as proposing that the key economic and logistical problems facing artists and art markets today (such as authentication and rights management) align perfectly with the areas in which the blockchain can offer solutions. Given this broad-scale attention, it might indeed seem that digital photography and decentralised computing could be beneficially combined.

As announced, Kodak’s ‘photo-centric’ blockchain project promises to revolutionise how we identify, authenticate, and reward the digital work of photographers around the world. In essence, KodakOne would consist of an autonomously operating web monitoring system designed to find all instances of individual photographs on the Internet, and to record these findings on the decentralised, presumably incorruptible blockchain database. Theoretically, this would allow Kodak to trace the movement of any digital photograph across websites, social media, and the Internet’s farthest, darkest reaches. The information collected would form a permanent and presumably immutable record of the images’ provenance, stored on the blockchain-based KodakOne platform. The creators of the individual photographs could thereby protect and enforce their intellectual property interests, and would receive royalties in the form of KodakCoin tokens.

As widely reported, following the initial announcement Eastman Kodak’s middling shares briefly gained 300% in value, and for a moment it looked as if the company might rejoin the ranks of globally significant photography-focused business ventures.[1]In hindsight, it’s unclear whether the huge spike in the company’s valuation was a consequence of the KodakOne announcement, or whether it resulted from the hype around a Kodak-branded Bitcoin mining device announced around the same time; Kodak has since distanced itself from the device, which has been widely accused of being a scam. As it is, KodakOne, like so many other hyped blockchain projects, is floundering even before taking off. In mid-2018, the platform still appears to exist only conceptually, in the form of press releases, an obligatory whitepaper, and corporate websites that offering sparse information. Hampered by repeated delays and marred by fraudulent activities surrounding its fundraising efforts, the platform raises many questions and draws heavy criticism.[2]For key critical articles, see Jason Bailey’s blog Artnome, as well as articles in the New York Times and on Bloomberg.com. Is it necessary for KodakOne to be designed as a blockchain application? How will photographers benefit from being rewarded in KodakCoins? How does KodakOne plan to ‘disrupt’ the existing landscape of digital image rights management? And ultimately, what do photographers stand to gain – or lose – when control of their work is decentralised?

What do photographers stand to gain – or lose – when control of their work is decentralised?

The core underlying assumption on which KodakOne hinges is that the work of digital photographers is poorly protected and often misappropriated without permission. Many photographers will be inclined to agree with this assessment, and KodakOne’s assurance that creators’ rights can finally be protected and compensated fairly is indeed alluring. But a number of critical issues put KodakOne’s ‘revolutionary’ promises in doubt, and can serve as a template for broader criticism of recent art-blockchain developments:

Firstly, it is unclear why KodakOne would need to be run as a blockchain application; critics argue that its core functions (including scouring the Internet for images and cataloguing their occurrences) can be easily carried out by other means. It is hard not to suspect that the key function of the blockchain is here simply to invoke the widespread positive associations carried by ‘decentralisation,’ a catchphrase which, in the minds of many, remains linked to efforts of ‘radically democratising’ digital networks. Presumably, a decentralised platform like KodakOne might remove control over digital images from any centralised power, and would shift this control back to the creators themselves. Yet this is highly unlikely, given that KodakOne aims to create (and then dominate) a new market standard for commercial image authentication and digital rights management. In the larger scheme of things, the ultimate aim of KodakOne is thus a kind of centralisation-by-means-of-decentralised-technology.

Secondly, it is so far unclear how KodakCoins, the dedicated cryptocurrency tokens with which photographers will be rewarded, will work. Judging from information on the KodakOne website, it may be impossible to convert the tokens into actual money, meaning that photographers might realise they are being ‘rewarded’ in a proprietary cryptocurrency they can only use in ways that are predetermined and controlled by the platform operator. Indeed, KodakOne makes reference to a dedicated KodakCoin marketplace, on which photographers would trade their tokens for equipment and photography-related services. Like my first point of criticism, this suggests that Kodak is hoping to create a closed ecology with a powerful locking-in effect for photographers willing to use KodakOne and KodakCoin (most similar projects, such as the above-mentioned Baidu-funded photo-sharing platform Totem, also operate with proprietary tokens). This represents a clear contradiction of any suggestions that KodakOne (or other blockchain-based art markets) are likely to truly democratise the management and control of digital photographs.

Lastly, and most problematically, KodakOne is premised on the assumption that every digital photograph existing online represents, first and foremost, a valuable asset that we must protect, monetise, and commercially exploit. Kodak’s marketing rhetoric targets creatives who, understandably, would like to be rewarded for their labor. But in doing so, the company invokes a philosophy of financialisation (well evidenced in a recently published academic report on the ‘Art Market 2.0’), in which every photograph becomes an ownable, tradeable artifact. The primary goal of KodakOne, it therefore appears, is to further monetise and tokenise cultural practice, creative expression, and art in general. While professionals undoubtedly need to be fairly compensated for their work, the underlying premise that every image created is simply a commercial asset calling out to be more efficiently controlled and exploited is disturbing.

All currently available information indicates that KodakOne is yet another over-hyped tech project that invokes blockchain technologies and catchphrases of network democratisation to veil a familiar corporate agenda of market control and financialisation. Amateur photographers and artists alike would be well advised to seriously consider whether they want all information regarding their work to be ‘immutably’ recorded in databases controlled by Kodak, and whether royalties paid in the form of tokens with extremely limited use are indeed fair compensation.

These concerns notwithstanding, KodakOne and KodakCoin serve to remind us that the current state of affairs – a global network of more or less free-floating, virtually uncontrollable digital image content – represents what might be called a great critical potential. There is a wild beauty to digital photographs’ existence as what Hito Steyerl has called ‘poor images’: they are ‘ripped,’ ‘reproduced,’ itinerant,’ ‘transient,’ ‘shared,’ and ‘resistant.’ They are, in other words, difficult to control, and for now they have resisted the specifics kinds of monetisation companies like Kodak (and institutions such as Christie’s) might have in mind.

Even before being tracked and documented on the blockchain, most digital photographs already exist in a state of (unorderly) decentralisation. To tame this digital image wilderness is an ambitious business plan, but thankfully not one that will likely succeed. KodakOne wants to catalogue, meta-tag, authenticate, and surreptitious track ‘poor’ images in order to render them as valuable property. If this is supposed to turn the photographs in question into ‘rich images,’ then we must ask ourselves who, indeed, will be enriched. In the history of intellectual property rights enforcement, centralised control over the flow of cultural information, licensing of artistic expression, and strict enforcement of creators’ rights have never been to the primary benefit of the artists involved. The desire (and radical creative spirit) to change that is very unlikely to come from KodakOne and similar blockchain-based photography platforms.

References

[1]

In hindsight, it’s unclear whether the huge spike in the company’s valuation was a consequence of the KodakOne announcement, or whether it resulted from the hype around a Kodak-branded Bitcoin mining device announced around the same time; Kodak has since distanced itself from the device, which has been widely accused of being a scam.

[2]

For key critical articles, see Jason Bailey’s blog Artnome, as well as articles in the New York Times and on Bloomberg.com.