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Unlock and Joint Ownership

Since August, I've been helping my friend Julien Genestoux at his startup Unlock.

Unlock is a protocol which enables creators to monetize their content with a few lines of code in a fully decentralized way. In the initial version, anyone can sell their work on the internet by adding two lines of code. Those are the only steps: create your content; add code; you're ready to accept payment. It's blockchain-based, so it's equally accessible to everyone in the world, both to buy and to sell.

It's really a decentralized protocol for access control. There are two elements to consider: a lock, and a set of  keys. You place a lock on some content to protect it; anyone with a key for that particular lock can access it. Publishers can use the same lock for as many different items of content as they want, and anyone with an appropriate key can access all of it. Content could be an article, a video, a podcast, or a software application. It can also be a mailing list, which is on the roadmap for 2019.

It's an open protocol at heart, which means it starts to get really interesting when other people begin to build on it. The initial Unlock code is a paywall; you can run our hosted version, or you can install the software and run your own. But you can also take the Unlock blockchain and structure and build something completely new. Over time, there will be more Unlock code and libraries that you can use as building blocks. Unlock, Inc doesn't need to be the central hub, and it doesn't need to own the blockchain. Unlike a service like Twitter, where the underlying company gets value by controlling access (and running ads), and therefore developers may get burned if they use it to underpin their products, Unlock the company is physically incapable of exerting central control over the Unlock Protocol.

I think what I've described is a good thing for the web - Unlock is the low-friction payments layer that should have been there from the very beginning - but much more is possible, and this isn't a "decentralize all the things!" argument. There are concrete benefits for businesses today. One thing I'm particularly excited about is that, because the blockchain is both transparent and decentralized, jointly-owned content becomes much more possible.

Two hypothetical examples:

Radiotopia is a podcast co-operative. Each podcast is wholly owned by its producer, but they raise money together and distribute funds as a stipend between them. Right now, they're fundraising using CommitChange; funds presumably pool to one central point - someone holds a bank account - and then are distributed by a human. But what if they could raise money by creating a lock that people purchase keys for, and the proceeds from that lock were automatically and transparently sent to every member of the Radiotopia network? They could still use CommitChange as a front end (particularly as it's based on the open source Houdini project), but their accounting and payments overhead would be dramatically lower. Each member of the network would also be able to trust that payments were made to them immediately and automatically. And for new networks - baby Radiotopias - creating a bundled content network becomes just a case of deciding to work together.

Project Facet is an open source project for collaborative journalism. Increasingly, in a world of budget cuts and changing business models, newsrooms need to collaborate to produce investigative reporting. Right now, they pool resources in informal ways, and produce separate stories based on the reporting. With the Unlock Protocol, they could collaborate on the substance of the stories themselves, and put them under a shared lock that automatically pools the revenue between the participating organizations. This would be much harder in a universe where you'd have a custodial bank account and an accountant who made payments; here it could be fully transparent, and fully automatic.

These are purely hypothetical, and non-exclusive; much more is possible. Just a flexible paywall, or paid-for mailing lists, are exciting. The point is that we can think beyond how we've traditionally restricted access, and how we've transferred value. Personally, in my work, I'm most motivated by concrete human use cases - and Unlock illustrates how blockchain services have a lot of potential. This isn't an ICO, and it's not a speculative coin play. It's a way for creators to pool and share value, and make money from their work in a flexible way. And that's exciting to me.

The code is fully open; you can get involved here.


Photo by Francois Hurtaud on Unsplash