Intellectual Property Rights in the On-Chain Internet

June 21, 2023

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Navigating intellectual property (IP) law in the current age of the Internet is a challenging feat. Though the Supreme Court’s ruling in Google vs. Oracle provided a sliver of clarity into how IP rights, specifically fair use, can translate into the digital world with global corporations, applications of IP are still hazy at best. For the average consumer, once content is online, it’s astonishingly easy to forgo any of its IP protections. How often have you “borrowed” an illustration off of Google without purchasing the necessary reuse rights, or illegally streamed a movie or music using a nefarious website? While expeditiously evolving technology paired with stagnant laws has left many IP rights questions unanswered, the blockchain may provide a solution. Though NFTs themselves do not directly provide IP protection, they can be utilized as a tool to enhance IP rights management and enforcement.

Public, immutable blockchains are a natural fit for issues with online IP rights because NFTs can serve as a decentralized and transparent record of ownership for any digital work. Each NFT contains unique metadata that includes information about the creator, the asset, and previous owners. This public record can be used to establish a chain of ownership and prevent unauthorized duplication or distribution of copyrighted material. Additionally, NFTs can facilitate the management of licensing and permissions for digital content. Smart contracts can be programmed to enforce specific terms and conditions, allowing creators to define how their work can be used, whether it's for personal use, commercial purposes, or limited editions. This helps maintain control over the distribution and usage of IP.

By creating an immutable and transparent record of ownership, NFTs are emerging as powerful tools, poised to revolutionize the enforcement and management of intellectual property rights in the digital landscape.

Proof of authenticity is an incredibly pressing issue in IP as generative artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly integrated in many facets of technology. Works created by humans can face IP protection issues such as ownership records and licensing, but there is no question about the authenticity of the work. When it comes to materials generated by AI models, such as those produced by large language models like ChatGPT, proving authenticity can be a challenge. Since these models are trained on vast amounts of data and generate text based on patterns and examples, it can be difficult to establish the original authorship or ownership of the output. Enter web3: by leveraging NFTs, it is possible to provide a form of proof of authenticity for these generated materials. For example, when a language model generates a piece of content, such as a text passage or a story, an NFT can be created and associated with that specific output. The NFT can include metadata that identifies the language model used, the date and time of generation, and any other relevant information. Furthermore, each NFT has a unique identifier that distinguishes it from other tokens. This identifier can be used to link the NFT to the specific generated content. By storing this identifier alongside the generated material, it becomes possible to establish a connection between the NFT and the output of the language learning model.

Not only are there authenticity issues with AI generated works, but the question of who owns the copyright is a contentious one. Using NFTs, a logical and uniform solution can be deployed. The creator of the language learning model or the organization responsible for its deployment can initially hold the NFT associated with the generated content. This ownership can be transferred to the user or licensee who obtains rights to use the material. This transfer can be recorded on the blockchain, ensuring transparency and immutability of the ownership record.

No matter the creator of a work, human or otherwise, NFTs and the blockchain provide a viable solution to IP issues that have plagued the Internet since content generation became mainstream. Copyright, trademark, and other intellectual property laws still apply to ensure comprehensive protection, but NFTs can complement existing legal frameworks by providing additional evidence and transparency in the digital world.