Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

Summary of An Interview on NPR with Michael Krieger, Co-founder of Instagram

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

One of Instagram‘s two co-founders, Michael Krieger, was interviewed on Saturday, March 26, 2016 on The New Yorker Radio Hour on WNYC, the NPR station in New York. In just 17 minutes, he and the interviewer, Nicholas Thompson, who is the editor of newyorker.com, covered a remarkable amount of valuable territory about the origin, operations and philosophy of Instagram.

Here is the link to the podcast entitled How Instagram Took Over the World. I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety. There is much to learned from the very insightful Mr. Krieger about the constantly changing world of startups. My admiration and gratitude to both him and Mr. Thompson for such a lively and engaging presentation.

Here is a brief summary of the subjects covered in the order they were discussed:

  • Instagram originally began as an app called “Burbn”.  It was not being used much at the time, but its photo-posting feature immediately drew the most interest of its initial users. The knowledge gained from the experience with Burbn became the foundation upon which Instagram was later built.¹
  • The co-founders’ key concerns all along have been ease-of-use in getting photos uploaded as quickly as possible and making them look good with the available filters and features.
  • When Instagram first launched, it very quickly gained an international audience. It generated early excitement because there were no language barriers in following other users. One of the initial and inspiring experiences of early users was following and supporting the rescue efforts after the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
  • At first, the co-founders were completely focused upon building the app’s infrastructure.
  • The media initially perceived the app as “something for hipsters”. In fact, a wide diversity of users was genuinely connecting with each other.
  • The co-founders needed to become well versed in copyright matters, as the users, not Instagram, own their photos. This included the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
  • Facebook purchased Instagram for approximately $1 billion in 2012. ² While FB’s philosophy is generally to get new projects implemented quickly online, Instagram prefers to take more time with their new upgrades and features to make certain they are done right.
  • Instagram has always been a “cohesive experience for users”.
  • Instagram has “changed the world” insofar as people “have a desire to tell stories”, and the app and others like it are “immediate and visceral”. Essentially, it enables users to “bring others into the moment”.
  • The ease-of-use of the app in getting photos uploaded quickly also permits users to “get back into your life” rather than taking too much time with the technology. In effect, taking more time to directly view and experience what a user has photographed after the photos have been easily uploaded and the phone put aside.
  • Both of Instagram’s founders, Michael Krieger and Kevin Systrom, have always gotten along well during the 6-year history of their company. Their respective skills in business and technology have always complemented each other.
  •  The founders have always maintained two guiding principles in their work:
    • Do the simple things first.
    • In terms of craft and design, do fewer things better.
  • The biggest challenge for startups today is getting noticed as marketing and distribution have become more difficult.

 


1.  For the full details on this story, see an article published in The Atlantic entitled Instagram Was First Called ‘Burbn’, June 2014, by Megan Garber.

2The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, as just one representative news media source among, appeared in an article published on April 10, 2012, entitled Insta-Rich: $1 Billion for Instagram, by Shayndi Raice and Spencer E. Ante.

The Mediachain Project: Developing a Global Creative Rights Database Using Blockchain Technology

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

When people are dating it is often said that they are looking for “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Right”. That is, finding someone who is just the right romantic match for them.

In the case of today’s rapid development, experimentation and implementation of blockchain technology, if a startup’s new technology takes hold, it might soon find a highly productive (but maybe not so romantic) match in finding Mr. or Ms. [literal] Right by deploying the blockchain as a form of global registry of creative works ownership.

These 5 Subway Fold posts have followed just a few of the voluminous developments in bitcoin and blockchain technologies. Among them, the August 21, 2015 post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry has drawn the most number of clicks. A new report on Coindesk.com on February 23, 2016 entitled Mediachain is Using Blockchain to Create a Global Rights Database by Pete Rizzo provides a most interesting and worthwhile follow on related to this topic. I recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it to provide some additional context, and then pose several of my own questions.

Producing a New Protocol for Ownership, Protection and Monetization

Applications of blockchain technology for the potential management of economic and distribution benefits of “creative professions”, including writers, musicians and others, that have been significantly affected by prolific online file copying still remains relatively unexplored. As a result, they do not yet have the means to “prove and protect ownership” of their work. Moreover, they do have an adequate system to monetize their digital works. But the blockchain, by virtue of its structural and operational nature, can supply these creators with “provenance, identity and micropayments“. (See also the October 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Summary of the Bitcoin Seminar Held at Kaye Scholer in New York on October 15, 2015 for some background on these three elements.)

Now on to the efforts of a startup called Mine ( @mine_labs ), co-founded by Jesse Walden and Denis Nazarov¹. They are preparing to launch a new metadata protocol called Mediachain that enables creators working in digital media to write data describing their work along with a timestamp directly onto the blockchain. (Yet another opportunity to go out on a sort of, well, date.)  This system is based upon the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). Mine believes that IPSF is a “more readable format” than others presently available.

Walden thinks that Mediachain’s “decentralized nature”, rather than a more centralized model, is critical to its objectives. Previously, a very “high-profile” somewhat similar initiative to establish a similarly global “database of musical rights and works” called the Global Repertoire Database (GDR) had failed.

(Mine maintains this page of a dozen recent posts on Medium.com about their technology that provides some interesting perspectives and details about the Mediachain project.)

Mediachain’s Objectives

Walden and Nazarov have tried to innovate by means of changing how media businesses interact with the Internet, as opposed to trying to get them to work within its established standards. Thus, the Mediachain project has emerged with its focal point being the inclusion of descriptive data and attribution for image files by combining blockchain technology and machine learning². As well, it can accommodate reverse queries to identify the creators of images.

Nazarov views Mediachain “as a global rights database for images”. When used in conjunction with, among others, Instagram, he and Walden foresee a time when users of this technology can retrieve “historic information” about a file. By doing so, they intend to assist in “preserving identity”, given the present challenges of enforcing creator rights and “monetizing content”. In the future, they hope that Mediachain inspires the development of new platforms for music and movies that would permit ready access to “identifying information for creative works”. According to Walden, their objective is to “unbundle identity and distribution” and provide the means to build new and more modern platforms to distribute creative works.

Potential Applications for Public Institutions

Mine’s co-founders believe that there is further meaningful potential for Mediachain to be used by public organizations who provide “open data sets for images used in galleries, libraries and archives”. For example:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met” as it is referred to on their website and by all of my fellow New York City residents), has a mandate to license the metadata about the contents of their collections. The museum might have a “metadata platform” of its own to host many such projects.
  • The New York Public Library has used their own historical images, that are available to the public to, among other things, create maps.³ Nazarov and Walden believe they could “bootstrap the effort” by promoting Mediachain’s expanded apps in “consumer-facing projects”.

Maintaining the Platform Security, Integrity and Extensibility

Prior to Mediachain’s pending launch, Walden and Nazarov are highly interested in protecting the platform’s legitimate users from “bad actors” who might wrongfully claim ownership of others’ rightfully owned works. As a result, to ensure the “trust of its users”, their strategy is to engage public institutions as a model upon which to base this. Specifically, Mine’s developers are adding key functionality to Mediachain that enables the annotation of images.

The new platform will also include a “reputation system” so that subsequent users will start to “trust the information on its platform”. In effect, their methodology empowers users “to vouch for a metadata’s correctness”. The co-founders also believe that the “Mediachain community” will increase or decrease trust in the long-term depending on how it operates as an “open access resource”. Nazarov pointed to the success of Wikipedia to characterize this.

Following the launch of Mediachain, the startup’s team believes this technology could be integrated into other existing social media sites such as the blogging platform Tumblr. Here they think it would enable users to search images including those that may have been subsequently altered for various purposes. As a result, Tumblr would then be able to improve its monetization efforts through the application of better web usage analytics.

The same level of potential, by virtue of using Mediachain, may likewise be found waiting on still other established social media platforms. Nazarov and Walden mentioned seeing Apple and Facebook as prospects for exploration. Nazarov said that, for instance, Coindesk.com could set its own terms for its usage and consumption on Facebook Instant Articles (a platform used by publishers to distribute their multimedia content on FB). Thereafter, Mediachain could possibly facilitate the emergence of entirely new innovative media services.

Nazarov and Walden temper their optimism because the underlying IPFS basis is so new and acceptance and adoption of it may take time. As well, they anticipate “subsequent issues” concerning the platform’s durability and the creation of “standards for metadata”. Overall though, they remain sanguine about Mediachain’s prospects and are presently seeking developers to embrace these challenges.

My Questions

  • How would new platforms and apps using Mediachain and IPSF be affected by the copyright and patent laws and procedures of the US and other nations?
  • How would applications built upon Mediachain affect or integrate with digital creative works distributed by means of a Creative Commons license?
  • What new entrepreneurial opportunities for startup services might arise if this technology eventually gains web-wide adoption and trust among creative communities?  For example, would lawyers and accountants, among many others, with clients in the arts need to develop and offer new forms of guidance and services to navigate a Mediachain-enabled marketplace?
  • How and by whom should standards for using Mediachain and other potential development path splits (also known as “forks“), be established and managed with a high level of transparency for all interested parties?
  • Does analogizing what Bitcoin is to the blockchain also hold equally true for what Mediachain is to the blockchain, or should alternative analogies and perspectives be developed to assist in the explanation, acceptance and usage of this new platform?

June 1, 2016 Update:  For an informative new report on Mediachain’s activities since this post was uploaded in March, I recommend clicking through and reading Mediachain Enivisions a Blockchain-based Tool for Identifying Artists’ Work Across the Internet, by Jonathan Shieber, posted today on TechCrunch.com.


1.   This link from Mine’s website is to an article entitled Introducing Mediachain by Denis Nazarov, originally published on Medium.com on January 2, 2016. He mentions in his text an earlier startup called Diaspora that ultimately failed in its attempt at creating something akin to the Mediachain project. This December 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “More Awesome Than Money” concerned a book that expertly explored the fascinating and ultimately tragic inside story of Diaspora.

2.   Many of the more than two dozen Subway Fold posts in the category of Smart Systems cover some of the recent news, trends and applications in machine learning.

3.  For details, see the January 5, 2016 posting on the NY Public Library’s website entitled Free for All: NYPL Enhances Public Domain Collections for Sharing and Reuse, by Shana Kimball and Steven A. Schwarzman.

Does 3D Printing Pose a Challenge to the Patent System?

"Quadrifolium 3D Print", Image by fdecomite

“Quadrifolium 3D Print”, Image by fdecomite

Whenever Captain Picard ordered up some of his favorite brew, “Earl Grey tea, hot”, from the Enterprise’s replicator, it materialized right there within seconds. What seemed like pure science fiction back when Star Trek: The Next Generation was first on the air (1987 – 1994), we know today to be a very real, innovative and thriving technology called 3D printing. So it seems that Jean-Luc literally and figuratively excelled at reading the tea leaves.

These five Subway Fold posts have recently covered just a small sampling of the multitude of applications this technology has found in both the arts and sciences. (See also #3dprinting for the very latest trends and developments.)

Let us then, well, “Engage!” a related legal issue about 3D printing: Does it violate US federal copyright law in certain circumstances? A fascinating analysis of this appeared in an article on posted January 6, 2016 on ScientificAmerican.com entitled How 3-D Printing Threatens Our Patent System by Timothy Holbrook. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own non-3D questions.

Easily Downloadable and Sharable Objects

Today, anyone using a range of relatively inexpensive consumer 3D printers and a Web connection can essentially “download a physical object”. All they need to do is access a computer-aided design (CAD) file online and run it on their computer connected to their 3D printer. The CAD file provides the highly detailed and technical instructions needed for the 3D printer to fabricate the item. As seen in the photo above, this technology has the versatility to produce some very complex and intricate designs, dimensions and textures.

Since the CAD files are digital, just like music and movie files, they can be freely shared online. This makes it likely that just as music and entertainment companies were threatened by file-sharing networks, so too is it possible that 3D printing will result in directly challenging the patent system. However, this current legal framework “is even more ill-equipped” to manage this threat. Consequently, 3D printing technology may well conflict with “a key component of our innovation system”.*

The US federal government (through the US Patent and Trademark office – USPTO), issues patents for inventions they determine are “nontrivial advances in state of the art”. These documents award their holders the exclusive right to commercialize, manufacture, use, sell or import the invention, while preventing other from doing so.

Infringements, Infringers and Economic Values

Nonetheless, if 3D printing enables parties other than the patent holder to “evade the patent”, its value and incentives are diminished. Once someone else employs a 3D printer to produce an object covered by a particular patent, they have infringed on the holder’s legal rights to their invention.

In order for the patent holder to bring a case against a possible infringer, they would need to have knowledge that someone else is actually doing this. Today this would be quite difficult because 3D printers are so readily available to consumers and businesses. Alternatively, the patent laws allow the patent holder to pursue an action against anyone facilitating the means to commit the infringement. This means that manufacturers, vendors and other suppliers of CAD and 3D technologies could be potential defendants.

US copyright laws likewise prohibit the “inducement of infringement”. For example, while Grokster did not actually produce the music on its file-sharing network, it did facilitate the easy exchange of pirated music files. The music industry sued them for this activity and their operations were eventually shut down. (See also this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How Music Got Free” about a recent book covering the history and consequences of music file sharing.)

This approach could also possibly be applied to 3D printing but based instead upon the patent laws. However, a significant impediment of this requires “actual knowledge of the relevant patent”. While nearly everyone knows that music is copyrighted, everyone is not nearly as aware that devices are covered by patents. 3D printers alone are covered by numerous patents that infringers are highly unlikely to know about much less abide. Moreover, how could a potentially aggrieved patent holder know about all of the infringers and infringements, especially since files can be so easily distributed online?

The author of this piece, Timothy Holbrook, a law professor at Emory University School of Law, and Professor Lucas Osborn from Campbell University School of Law, believe that the courts should focus on the CAD files to stem this problem. They frame the issue such that if the infringing object can so easily be produced with 3D printing then “should the CAD files themselves be viewed as digital patent infringement, similar to copyright law?” Furthermore, the CAD files have their own value and, when they are sold and used to 3D print an item, then such seller is benefiting from the “economic value of the invention”. The professors also believe there is no infringement if a party merely possesses a CAD file and is not selling it.

Neither Congress nor the courts have indicated whether and how they might deal with these issues.

My Questions

  • Would blockchain technology’s online ledger system provide patent holders with adequate protection against infringement? Because of the economic value of CAD files, perhaps under such an arrangement could they be written to the blockchain and then have Bitcoin transferred to the patent holder every time the file is downloaded.  (See the August 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry which covered an innovative approach now being explored for copyrights and royalties in the music industry)
  • Would the digital watermarking of CAD files be a sufficient deterrent to protect against file-sharing and potentially infringing 3D printing?
  • What new opportunities might exist for entrepreneurs, developers and consultants to help inventors protect and monitor their patents with regard to 3D printing?
  • Might some inventors be willing to share the CAD files of their inventions on an open source basis online as an alternative that may improve their work while possibly avoiding any costly litigation?

 


These seven Subway Fold posts cover a series of other recent systems, developments and issues in intellectual property.


If this ends up in litigation, the lawyers will add an entirely new meaning to their object-ions.

Book Review of “How Music Got Free”

"CD", Image by Dean Hochman

“CD”, Image by Dean Hochman

It is nearly impossible to compete in a consumer market when a previously lucrative product is suddenly available for free. This phenomenon adds a whole new meaning to the notion of “priced to sell”.

No industry illustrates this tectonic disruption brought about by the Net more than the music business during the last 20 years. While there has been an ocean of ink and a quantum of bits expended telling this story, I have come across none more compelling, thorough and entertaining than How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). This is a great story well told with clarity, precision, style and humor.

While the tales of Napster and the other peer-to-peer sharing networks, the lawsuit by Metallica and other litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop them, and precipitous drop in CD sales since then have all been previously told at length elsewhere, the author takes us down some new and alternative narrative paths. Witt has accomplished this skillfully weaving together the stories of the German engineers who created the MP3 format, a prolific music pirate, and a music industry mogul. The intersection of their activities in the music downloading revolution makes for hours of absorbing and instructive reading.

The book succeeds simultaneously as a business case study and a human interest story. It deftly leverages all three main plot threads in a narrative that heightens the reader’s interest as the events steadily crisscross the real world from rural Kentucky to Germany to New York City, and then likewise online across the web. Any one of these stories would have made for engaging reading on their own. Yet they are carefully fitted together by the author in a manner that relentlessly propels the all of them forward.

He also wisely wastes none of his text on superfluous side trips. Rather, he maintains a consistent focus throughout on how the music biz got turned upside down and inside out by a series of fast-breaking developments it neither fully understood nor had any viable alternatives ready to counter it.

A roster of A-List Hollywood writers and talent agents could not have possibly done better in creating the members of the real life cast. There are many useful lessons to be learned from them about business strategy, marketing, competition, and the strength of the human character in the face of the unprecedented and massive disruption* of what had been such a highly leveraged and lucrative market.

First and foremost among them was Benny “Dell” Glover. The details of his online and offline exploits read as though they were extracted from deep inside the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file. He worked in a rural CD manufacturing plant and that afforded him access to the latest releases by music industry’s top acts. Often a month in advance of their commercial debut, Glover would smuggle them out of the plant, encode them using the MP3 format, and upload them for free distribution online through Napster and a host of other peer-to-peer networks. He was also part of a larger band of well-organized, tech savvy and daring digital music pirates who referred to their collective activities as the “Scene”.  Glover was likely responsible for the largest volume of free music that ever got digitally disbursed.

Second was Karlheinz Brandenburg, the lead engineer and inventor of the MP3 technology. He ran the group that devised MP3 technology without any intent whatsoever of how it eventually ended up being used. It was a technological accomplishment that at first drew little attention in the audio industry. There were other competing compression formats that were gaining more traction in the marketplace. Nonetheless, through perseverance, superior technical skills and a bit of favorable circumstances, MP3 began to find success. This was first in the broadcast marketplace and later on as the tech of choice among the music pirates and their audience. Brandenburg’s transformation over time from a humble audio engineer to an experienced business executive is deftly told and threaded throughout the book.

Third was Doug Morris who, during the events portrayed in the book, was the CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG). While Glover’s and Brandenburg’s parts in this narrative make for some engrossing reading, it is Morris’s meteoric rise and determination in the music industry that pulls the entire story together so very well. Not only does he reach the pinnacle of his field as a top executive in the largest music companies, he does everything in power to try to keep UMG economically competitive while under siege from freely downloadable MP3s recorded by his deep and wide talent bench.

While he did not have a hacker’s understanding of MP3’s technical ministrations, he fully understood, reacted and resisted its profound impacts. His initial line of attack was litigation but this proved to be ineffective and produced much negative publicity. Later he successfully monetized UMG’s vast trove of music video by forming the hosting and syndication service on Vevo. He is the most resourceful and resilient player in this story.

These three protagonists are vividly brought to center stage and fully engaged in Witt’s portrayal of their roles and fates in this Digital Age drama.  Just as the superior acoustics in a musical venue can enhance the performances of musicians and actors,  analogously so too does the author’s reporting and expository skills animate and enliven the entirety of events across his every page of his book. Indeed, “How Music Got Free” completely fulfills its title’s promise and, clearly, hits all the right notes.


At the time of the events portrayed in How Music Got Free, there was widespread fear that it would become increasingly difficult for artists and entertainment companies to ever profit again as they had done in the past. As a timely follow-up exploration and analysis how this never quite came to pass, I very highly recommend reading The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t by Steven Johnson, which was published in the August 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine.  (Johnson’s most recent book as also reviewed in the January 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How We Got to Now”.)


*  The classic text on the causes and effect of market disruptions, disruptors and those left behind, read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry

"Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] - Sahara Tent", Image by The Bull Pen, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] – Sahara Tent”, Image by The Bull Pen

With the advent and then propulsive web-wide spread of MP3 file technology during the last twenty years*,  all of the music industry’s consumers, artists, recording companies, talent agents, business models,  distribution channels and intellectual property rights have been radically transformed. Today, the big money in the industry today is most often made by artists with established names who are able to draw audiences during their tours, sell merchandise, and continue to sell and stream music from their catalogs.

Of course, nowadays every well-known, moderately known and unknown act has an online presence to engage and inform their fan bases through an array of social media platforms and dedicated websites. Still, the music biz today is an even tougher business to earn a dollar than it ever was before. (See also the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.)

In an effort to adapt dramatically new technology to energize, innovate and democratize the music industry, two recent startups, both still in their development stages, are using blockchain technology in previously unseen and imaginative ways. The blockchain is, in its simplest terms, a distributed, decentralized, transparent and encrypted database that acts as an online ledger to record transactions, documents and other information. It is most often used to memorialize transactions involving bitcoin. (See the May 8, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “The Age of Cryptocurrency” concerning a comprehensive new book on this subject.)

These early stage startups were the subject of a truly fascinating article posted on Billboard.com on August 5, 2015 entitled How ‘the Blockchain’ Could Actually Change the Music Industry by Gideon Gottfried. I will summarize, annotate and ask some unencrypted questions of my own.

I.  PeerTracks

The first startup is called PeerTracks. Their plan is to establish a music streaming and retail platform that includes “fan engagement and peer-to-peer talent discovery”, according to its president, Cedric Cobban.  They will use the blockchain for its transactions and paying artists directly for any revenue generated when their music is streamed “on a per-user-share basis”. Their launch is currently planned in about two months.

The core of their approach is to generate marketing revenue through the use of “artist tokens”. This is a system whereby each musical artist can create their own tokens with their name and image, and then set the permanently fixed amount of them to be made available. These tokens are intended to take on the characteristics of a “sub-cryptocurrency” (similar to some of Bitcoin’s characteristics), whereby the value that emerges for them is a direct indicator, based upon supply and demand, of the artist’s appeal. Site users can also speculate on the future value of the music and merchandise of currently unknown musicians.

The artists on PeerTracks will have the capabilities to affect the relative value of their own tokens. They will be enabled to buy back their tokens with any income they generate from “streams, sales, merch, tickets”. They can also permanently eliminate some tokens to decrease their supply and, in turn, increase their value.

Conversely, artists can affect demand by the types of items they offer to their token holders. Among other things, they can offer “discounts, free tickets, giveaways”. By providing incentives for fans to acquire their token, artists can raise the tokens’ relative values. As well, there are potential benefits to advertisers on PeerTracks interested in implementing paid sponsorships for more recognized music acts with product giveaways.

All songs uploaded on the site will be accompanied by a “smart contract“. According to the immediately preceding link to Wikipedia, smart contracts are “computer protocols that facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract, or that obviate the need for a contractual clause”.  The smart contracts on PeerTracks divide up the funds generated accordingly among the parties involved in the song’s composition and performance. This is considered to be an important advance in using the blockchain and, it is hoped by developers currently working on this, will become a platform upon which new business models will emerge.

II.  Ujo

The second startup in this space is called Ujo. Their plan to use the blockchain to improve both the distribution of royalties to artists and music licensing. They intend to accomplish this by establishing a “rights and payment infrastructure”. It will be free to use and open for third parties to create their own apps for new services including, among others, curation, streaming and negotiation.  Similar to PeerTracks, they are working on an alternative means to distributing revenues to “artists and rights holders”. Furthermore, they are trying to build a blockchain-based means to determine ownership of creative works.

The prospective adoption of this by the music industry of this entirely new system is expected to take time because of its tendencies to keep data private as well its outdated and often incompatible systems. Phil Barry, who is involved Ujo along with about 20 other developers, hopes their new system will unify and replace the legacy systems. He believes the platform will provide economic advantages to artists and recording companies receiving their royalties through it. As well, this will provide “new revenue and business models”, new ways for consumers to enjoy music, and simplification to the manner in which “music is managed and licensed”.

When an artist creates a new song in the future, using Ujo it will be permanently stored on the blockchain and assigned a unique ID. If another artists or performers changes anything about the song, their subsequent versions will receive a new ID and be “instantly recognizable”. Any resulting revenue from the song will then be distributed immediately and “proportionately to each rights holder”.

My own questions are as follows:

  • What other marketplaces, technologies and professions would benefit from using comparable types of blockchain adaptations?
  • Could traditional legal documents such as contracts, leases and wills, among many others, be written to the blockchain to make certain that all parties to them met their obligations?
  • Could artists’ tokens likewise be created for actors, writers, painters, graphics artists and other creative types?
  • What would be the results of a book or any other publication being written to the blockchain in terms of royalties, rights, subscriptions and recognition?

March 4. 2016 Update: For a related follow-up on this post please see the new Subway Fold post entitled The Mediachain Project: Developing a Global Creative Rights Database Using Blockchain Technology

June 5, 2017 Update:  An new article posted today, June 5, 2017, on the Harvard Business Review blog entitled Blockchain Could Help Musicians Make Money Again, by Imogen Heap, looks at the potential of blockchain technology from a musician’s point of view. A highly recommended read if you have an opportunity to click through. 


*  For an outstandingly written and highly engaging account of the total transformation of the music industry, I very highly recommend a recently published book entitled How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). I just finished reading this and to say the least, it rocked.

Google is Giving Away Certain Patents to 50 Startups In Their Latest Effort to Thwart Patent Trolls

"She Runs Neon Fraction of a Second", Image by Wonderlane

“She Runs Neon Fraction of a Second”, Image by Wonderlane

In the highly competitive world of creating, monetizing, defending and challenging tech-based intellectual property, “free” is neither a word often heard nor an offer frequently made.

However, Google has just begun a new program, for a limited time, to give away a certain types of patents they own to an initial group of 50 startups.  This is principally being done in an effort to resist time and resources devouring litigation with “patent trolls“, companies that purchase patents for no other purpose than to litigate infringement claims in their attempts to win monetary judgments. (We first visited this issue in an April 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Analytics Process Uses Patent Data to Predict Advancements in Specific Technologies.)

The details of this initiative were carried in a most interesting new article on TechCrunch.com posted on July 23, 2015 entitled Google Offers To Give Away Patents To Startups In Its Push Against Patent Trolls by Ingrid Lunden. I will summarize, annotate, and pose some free questions of my own.

In April 2015, Google successfully started a temporary program for companies to offer to sell them (Google) their patents. Then on July 23, 2015, they launched a reciprocal program to give away, at no cost, “non-organic” patents (that is, those purchased by Google from third parties), to startups.

The recipients of these giveaways are required to abide by two primary conditions:

  • They must join the LOT Network for two years.  This is a tech industry association of patent owners dedicated to reducing the volume of patent troll-driven litigation.
  • The patents can only be used defensively to “protect a company against another patent suit”. Thus, the patents cannot be used to bring a case “against another company” or else its ownership “reverts back to Google”.

Kurt Brasch, one of Google’s senior patent licensing managers who was interviewed for the TechCrunch story, expects other members of the LOT Network to start their own similar programs.

For any of the 50 startups to be eligible for Google’s program, another key requirement is that their 2014 revenues must fall between $500,000 and $20 million. Next, if eligibility is determined, within 30 days they will receive “a list of three to five families of patents”, from which they can make their selection. Still, Google “will retain a broad, nonexclusive license to all divested assets”, as these patents might still be important to the company.

For those startups that apply and are determined to be ineligible, Google will nonetheless provide them with access “to its own database of patents”. These are presumed to alas be categorized as “non-organic”. The unselected startups will be able to ask Google to consider “the potential purchase of any such assets”.

Back in April, when Google began their acquisitions of patents, they were approached by many operating companies and patent brokers. Both types of entities told Mr. Brasch about a “problem in the secondary market“. These businesses were looking for an alternative means to sell their patents to Google and Mr. Brasch was seeking a means to assist interested buyers and sellers.

Google eventually purchased 28% of the patents they were offered that the company felt could potentially be used in their own operations. As these patents were added to Google’s patent portfolio, a portion of them were categorized as “non-organic” and, as such, the company is now seeking to give them away.

Both sides of Google’s latest patent initiative demonstrate two important strategic points as the company is now:

  • Taking more action in enabling other tech firms to provide assistance against litigation brought by troll-driven lawsuits.
  • Presenting the company as a comprehensive “broker and portal” for patents matters.

Last week, as another part of this process, Google substantially upgraded the features on its Google Patents Search. This included the addition of search results from both Google Scholar and Google Prior Art Finder.  (For the full details and insights on the changes to these services see Google’s New, Simplified Patent Search Now Integrates Prior Art And Google Scholar, also by Ingrid Lunden, posted on TechCrunch.com on July 16, 2015.)

While both the purchasing and selling operations of Google’s effort to test new approaches to the dynamics of the patent marketplace appear to be limited, they might become more permanent later on depending on the  results achieved. Mr. Brasch also anticipates continuing development of this patent market going forward either from his company or a larger “group of organizations”.  Just as Google has moved into other commercial sector including, among others, “shopping, travel and media”, so too does he expect the appearance of more new and comparable marketplaces.

My own questions are as follows:

  • In addition to opposing patent troll litigation, what other policy, public relations, technical and economic benefits does Google get from their new testbed of marketplace services?
  • What other industries would benefit from Google’s new marketplace? What about pharmaceuticals and medical devices, materials science (see these four recent Subway Fold posts in this category),  and/or automotive and aerospace?
  • Should Google limit this project only to startups? Would they consider a more expansive multi-tiered approach to include different ranges of yearly revenue? If so, how might the selection of patents to be offered and other eligibility requirements be decided?
  • Might there be some instances where Google and perhaps other companies would consider giving away non-organic patents to the public domain and allowing further implementation and development of them to operate on an open source basis? (These 10 Subway Fold posts have variously touched upon open source projects and methods.)