Decentralised, censorship-proof, blockchain-friendly: could ISCC be the new ISBN for books?

Decentralised, censorship-proof, blockchain-friendly: could ISCC be the new ISBN for books?

As a distributed, secure, censorship-resistent and anonymous digital ledger of economic transaction, the blockchain has always seemed to have potential for authors and publishers alike. But despite a few promising applications - Publica, a blockchain-based publishing platform will be pitching in our BookTech competition at FutureBook Live in November - the technology has yet to make an impact on the mainstream industry.

Could the ISCC change all that? A new content identifier with the potential to replace ISBN / ISSN / DOI standards, the International Standard Content Code - displayed on a decentralized blockchain solution - was funded by the Google News initiative last year, and a first version is already launched.

We asked Sebastian Posth, a digital entrepreneur and one of the team behind the tech, to take us through the proposed new standard in layman's terms and explain the potential impact on books over the next few years.


 In no more than 100 words, give us a clear overview of the ISCC concept.

The media industries are still relying on identifiers that were designed for physical products such as printed books, magazines or CD’s. Traditional content identifiers (like ISBN or ISRC) are often expensive and managed by centralized institutions, and they fall short of the requirements for digital trade. Freely accessible standard identifiers, which are specifically designed to manage digital content, are a fundamental prerequisite for efficient transactions in a decentralized and increasingly heterogeneous media environment. The ISCC (International Standard Content Code) is the first open, generic identifier designed for digital media content. It can be used to register content on the blockchain and also in off-chain environments.

Why do you think it is so badly needed?

Distributing, licensing and re/selling digital content on a global scale is often an all too complicated and inefficient process. Identifiers are randomly and ambiguously applied to content files, metadata or license terms are often incoherent and loosely attached to the content, distributed in separate (ONIX) files, or subject to individual legal negotiations - all of this is time-consuming an prone to errors and manual interventions.

The ISCC is an modern algorithmic identifier with unique features that support advanced machine learning applications. It can also be used to de-duplicate or find similar content. It addresses two crucial issues of online transactions:

  1. The ISCC is a fingerprint of the actual content, created by standardized hashing algorithms. It allows to identify content unambiguously in a decentralized manner, meaning that any party with access to the content itself can reliably create its ID, even on a local device, offline.
  2. With the ISCC being registered on an open and decentralized blockchain ledger, access to title metadata and license information can be provided by the rights owner on-chain - or even off-chain. Thus, by inseparably connecting content, ID, metadata and license information, sales transactions of digital media content can be facilitated in a more simple and seamless way.

Also, most consumer marketplaces are owned by a small number of large centralized companies. Blockchain technology will change these established structures and radically simplify the way rights owners can offer and sell their works of art, directly to users or through vendors that make use of the technology. Starting with better and accessible identifiers for digital content, the entire ecosystem has the potential to become more innovative and efficient.

What impact could it have on publishers, authors and readers?

Modern identifiers and blockchain based transactions could streamline all processes across the publishing ecosystem and among the participants of the value and distribution chain. This will have a positive impact on content discovery, licensing and sales. It will also support new ways to curate content offerings, incentivize marketing and build reputation systems while vendor lock-in will be reduced. This will create new business opportunities for authors, small and large publishers alike, e.g. by increasing long tail sales or utilizing new ways to license content, globally.

Who is the team behind it?

The ISCC identifier standard has been developed by the Content Blockchain Project, which was initiated by a consortium of publishing, law and IT companies, based in Germany and the Netherlands. In 2016, the project received initial funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative to undertake research and development on the opportunities of blockchain technology for the media industry. All project results and achievements are documented and available as open source code that can be used for any kind of commercial and non-commercial purposes. The project is also open for contributions from interested parties.

What’s the reaction from the industry so far?

Having experienced the migration from print to digital over the last 15 years at first hand, it seems to me that the publishing industry is comparably open to explore the opportunities of blockchain technology (in general) and the ISCC standard identifier (in particular). Many publishers, distributors or retailers struggle with the current market setup, for which blockchain or innovations like the ISCC suggest an improvement. Moreover, it is very unlikely that blockchain technology will go away anytime soon.

A lot of academic and non-fiction publishers, digital distributors and retailers are already looking into blockchain technology. Some have even set-up working groups to investigate individual approaches and business solutions based on blockchain technology to utilize it for digital logistics, peer-review, time-stamping, content licensing, rights management or other applications.

What’s going to be your biggest barrier to adoption?

Among a couple of technical hurdles, the standardization process is the biggest challenge for a project that intends to create a new global digital content identifier standard. The ISCC will be even more useful the more users agree on the suggested standard procedure of hashing the content in order to create the content’s unique ID. To ensure a broad adoption, the project is addressing a formal standardization process and introducing the ISCC to publishers associations, standardization organizations and ISBN agencies, who could very well use the ISCC as a complementary identifier for digital content alongside to the ISBN.

Marketing and communicating the standard and its benefits for the publishing community will be a continuous task for the months and years to come. We are in the early days of blockchain technology, and knowledge about it is still rare. But just like the internet, blockchain technology will substantially change the way that many media companies do business.

Can you imagine other ways in which the blockchain might impact on the book trade?

The Content Blockchain Project envisions an open and decentralized ecosystem, dedicated to content identification, content licensing and transactions on the blockchain. It is designed to operate as a new layer on top of the internet: a censorship-resistant, global, digital infrastructure for the creative community to offer, sell and license digital media content and otherwise exchange value over the network. By design, the Content Blockchain is open for anyone to create and develop all kinds of new and innovative applications and tools that can connect to the distributed ledger. It will be interesting - and remains to be seen - which ideas publishers and media startups will come up within this media new ecosystem.