Since the days of the Old Masters, it's been difficult to tell an authentic masterpiece from a fake. And once artists like Andy Warhol began using mass production techniques in their own studios, authentic originals became even harder to distinguish from knock-off copies, leading in Warhol’s case to high-profile disputes about what constitutes a genuine work. (And that's to say nothing of the added complications of copyright to authorship.)
With purely digital forms of art, what it means to "own" a work gets more complex still—where an entire work is ultimately a series of bits on disk, what is the gallery actually selling?
"I've seen firsthand the difficulties that artists working digitally have in participating in the traditional art markets," says artist and New York University professor Kevin McCoy. "Non-object-based art doesn't have the same traction."
It's so difficult for digital artists to sell their work through traditional gallery channels, in fact, that some leading some artists have changed their practices, adding tangible components to their art to make it more marketable, says McCoy.
The more digital art sells, however, the more likely it will be counterfeited. To solve that authentication problem, McCoy and serial entrepreneur Anil Dash created Monegraph, which allows artists to digitally sign their work using the cryptocurrency Namecoin. The signature, along with a digital title recording who owns the work, is preserved in Namecoin’s public shared transaction registry, or blockchain, which is essentially a modified version of Bitcoin’s blockchain letting users publish arbitrary data. If owners choose to transfer the work, they can publish a record of the title change to the blockchain as well.
"Only one copy of a digital image can ever have a valid monegraph signature," McCoy and Dash wrote on the Monegraph website. "Monegraph images are just ordinary image files, so they can be duplicated and distributed like any other images, but only the original file will pass validation against the monegraph system."
Namecoin is primarily designed to serve as a decentralized domain name registry service, where users can register, renew, and transfer Internet domains without the need of any central authority by publishing to the blockchain. But the blockchain is designed to let users store arbitrary data in key-value pairs, not just domain name records, so it can be used for other purposes, too, like recording the title to artwork.
To register a work through Monegraph, the artist records a URL pointing to the piece, the piece’s cryptographic hash, a brief explanatory, and a second URL pointing to a more detailed announcement of the claim. That claim gets posted on a site known to belong to the artist, such as his or her Twitter account, verifying it’s indeed the artist registering the work.
McCoy and Dash launched Monegraph at The New Museum in New York on May 3, as part of the digital art group Rhizome’s Seven on Seven, essentially a hackathon pairing influential figures from art and technology. Now, they’re working on making the system easier to use for artists, McCoy says.
The initial version was designed with images in mind, but once the platform is further built out, there’s no reason the same concept wouldn’t work for authenticating and tracking ownership of any kind of media file, from music to film to the written word, he says.
"Everyone in the art world that’s dealing with technology, they get it right away," says McCoy. "Now, we're at the beginning of the process of trying to roll it out, from a protocol to a platform, which is a bigger job."