Consider for a moment these two hypothetical scenarios:
In the first scenario, you have taken a photo on a camera, developed the film and put it in your handbag. While enjoying a coffee in a café on a summer day, someone steals the photo from your handbag, takes it to their home, frames it and puts it on their wall.
What would you do? It is theft, of course. You would probably feel somewhat violated, and you might even consider calling the police. If the police found the perpetrator, they might face serious punishment if you could prove that the photo is valuable. Regardless, there would be consequences for the person’s actions.
In the second scenario, you have taken a photo and placed it on your social media page. Without your permission, someone downloads the photo and uses it for their own purposes, perhaps as an image for a company brochure. Soon, 1000s of people are downloading the image, using it for various purposes – some might even claim that they took the photo.
What would you do? Many artists have been wrestling with this issue since the World Wide Web launched. You would most likely get laughed at if you phoned the police to report someone taking your Instagram image. You might report it to the social media company, but this is only a band-aid solution and, as it seems, an exhausting process.
Copyright infringement hounds creators
Both these scenarios share certain fundamental characteristics. But whereas the first scenario is deemed to be immoral and has legal consequences, the second is usually greeted with a shrug. In the wild west of the internet, people complain all the time about copyright infringement, but there is little they can do about it. Speak to creators on social media platforms, and they tend to be exasperated about the situation. For every perpetrator stopped, 1000 more take their place.
And yet, a solution of sorts seems to have been found by one artist. The Canadian photographer Cath Simard had faced the problem set out in the second scenario. She found that her photo shown below (don’t worry, we have reproduced it legitimately) of a Hawaii road was being “stolen” all the time, and was being used for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.
After getting fed up with seeing her photo reproduced without giving her credit, Simard decided to auction it as an NFT (Non-Fungible Token). She received $300,000 USD for the photo. After the NFT sale, Simard then released the photo free of copyright, allowing anyone to use it (including for this article) with a clear conscience.
You have probably heard of NFTs as they have hit the news recently. Essentially, it is a way of determining ownership of a piece of digital art. The term “art” is used very loosely here, as it might refer to a meme, a video clip or even a tweet. But, with the help of blockchain technology, an NFT is a way of monetizing intellectual property on the internet – and it could be a gamechanger for some creators. However, some critics maintain that NFTs are a fad.
We won’t bore you with a full explanation of NFTs and their links to cryptocurrency, nor whether it is a viable solution to copyright infringement on the web. Rather we wanted to look at the idea of regulation of the internet, and how the example of Cath Simard was a case of a technology stepping up to fill the gap left by authorities.
The question of who polices the internet has been around since Tim Berners-Lee published that first webpage in August 1991. And, if you have seen the various execs of Facebook and Google hauled up in front of parliamentary committees the world over, the answer 30 years later seems to be that Big Tech is in charge. But just as with issues like abuse or misinformation on social media, the problem with copyright infringement is just too widespread to deal with effectively.
Politicians might throw their hands up in exasperation that Mark Zuckerberg is not doing enough to combat these problems. But in truth, it boils down to a more fundamental truth – the internet was conceived to be decentralized. That is to say that control of the internet was supposed to be by the many (its users), not the few (governments). Although, it does not work that way in practice.
Casino regulation is widely supported
The internet, of course, is not without regulation, and that’s a good thing. For example, if I wanted to play at an online casino in Canada, I would have better peace of mind when I learn that the casino is regulated by authorities. To hold a licence in Canada, top sites like Genesis Casino must adhere to strict regulation, including audits, from governmental authorities and regulators. This means that I – as a player – can be sure the games are fair.
The casino example is a good one as it is one that even the firmest supporters of a decentralized web away from central government control can get behind. But this is just one small section of the web, and one of the easiest to formulate regulation for. Look into the question of regulating the internet as a whole, and the consensus seems to be that it has just gotten too big.
And yet, as with Cath Simard’s photo, there are those who believe that the answer will come from the bottom up, not top-down. Technology will veer towards self-regulation that will answer some of the problems that politicians have been struggling with down the years.
Smart contracts could provide solutions
What if, for example, on originally publishing her photo on Instagram, Cath Simard had embedded a smart contract into the image? And, with every reproduction of that image, a small payment was automatically made to her? That kind of technology is not too far away, and it could be a more sustainable answer than that provided by NFT auctions.
Again, we won’t bore you with all the technical stuff, but smart contracts, which use blockchain technology linked to the cryptocurrency Etherum, are a means of forming an unbreakable agreement between two parties. They are immutable, meaning, for example, that ‘A’ will only happen when ‘B’ occurs. So in plain English, you could only reproduce that Hawaii photo once a payment has been made to Cath Simard (in the blockchain world, this would all happen almost instantly and automatically).
Of course, blindly claiming that technology will provide all the answers would be naïve and foolish. But the solution found by Cath Simard and others is a neat example of technology solving a problem that has confounded governments. The example in and of itself is maybe not all that important (it escaped the attention of the mainstream media), but it hints at future possibilities of how tech can solve problems that seemed unsolvable.