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Identity as Linked Data on Immutable Ledgers



We just released a first draft of the COALA Intellectual Property Specification. Additionally, we released a document outlining the models' schema definitions. Feedback, comments and questions are welcome!


Content creators on the Web are getting a raw deal. They get a fraction of a cent for an ad played on YouTube, and nothing on Facebook, for filling these sites with traffic-driving content. It’s hard to make a living when you’re a creative. Licensing is hard; the user experience is bad, so lawyers and middlemen extract the most value. In the music industry, more money flows into the pockets of distributors than creatives. Consumers are often happy to pay for their content. Instead, they're forced to sit through ads.

The COALA IP Working Group

To address these problems, COALA IP (Coalition Of Automated Legal Applications, Intellectual Property) was formed to design and implement a free and open specification for handling digital licensing of intellectual property. Its goals are to establish open, free, and easy ways to claim attribution, add metadata, license works, mediate IP disputes, and authenticate claims of others. Furthermore, the group believes that there should be global agreement at the data level without the need for centralized control.

A recent, more concrete, endeavor of the group has been to write a specification for handling digital licensing of intellectual property on immutable ledgers. It's an effort to transform the implementation-agnostic Rights Reference Model of the Linked Content Coalition into a free and open guideline. It outlines technologies that could be leveraged for implementation and structure of a specification for all involved parties: creators, rights holders, consumers, developers, etc. The protocol is to be technology-opinionated, but ledger-agnostic.

The COALA IP Protocol

The COALA IP protocol is essentially two parallel technical efforts:

  1. It's a community-driven effort to find and define a minimally-viable set of data for licensing intellectual property (using RDF schema definitions)
  2. It's a free and open messaging/communication protocol for license-transactions

At its core, the RDF schema defines ontology over seven main entities and their interconnections. The ontology as well as all entities have been derived from the LCC's RRM:

  • Place: A localizable, physical place (e.g. an address, a city, a country, ...)
  • Manifestation (digital or physical): A perceivable creation (e.g. a print of a photograph of a certain scene)
  • Creation: A distinct, abstract creation whose existence is revealed through one or more manifestations (e.g. The idea to photograph a certain scene)
  • Right: A transferable entity connected to a manifestation that entitles the owner to do something in relation to a Creation (e.g. a permission to display a Manifestation publicly)
  • RightsAssignment: A transfer of a Right (e.g. Transferring the permission to display a Manifestation publicly)
  • Assertion: A claim made about the truth or falsehood of assertions made in the ontology (e.g. A statement vouching for the validity that a certain Party is the original author of a Creation)
  • Party: An individual or a group of individuals representing right holders, licensors, users and so on...(e.g. a human being or a group of human beings)

Since finding a minimally-viable set of properties that describe each of the entities' features is difficult without having domain-specific industry knowledge, COALA IP's plan is to open this process up to the community, thereby letting the community define and derive domain-specific RDF schema. As soon as saturation for changes in schema emerge, further formalization is planned to take them to an appropriate international standards organization.

Key technologies used to achieve this endeavor are:

  • JSON-LD: A recently emerged RDF serialization format, that brings Linked Data to the JSON data structure
  • IPLD: A data structure to merkle-link JSON objects in order to retrieve them with merkle-paths, providing cryptographic integrity-checking of the data as well as content-addressable storage
  • ILP: A set of specifications for sending (at this point only: fungible) digital assets across different ledgers

The Missing Link: Identity

As of the writing of this position paper, all pieces of the specification are in place except one: Identity (the so called "Party" entity mentioned in the previous section).

Members of the COALA IP working group would like to actively participate in design-workshops of the Web of Trust working group to discuss identity solutions that fulfill the following systematic requirements:

  • An Identity's identifier must be resolvable within the Internet
  • An Identity's properties must enable other Identities to validate the cryptographic integrity of an Identity's signed data
  • An Identity must have at least one persistent unique public identifier that is both human- and machine-readable
  • An Identity participates in a global trust network, having it's trustworthiness continuously evaluated by other participating Identities

In order to be compliant with the current state of the COALA IP protocol, the following requirements should be fulfilled:

  • If an Identity can be resolved within the Internet, then its data can be integrity-checked cryptographically (compare: content-addressed storage provided by IPFS and IPLD is favored)
  • Preferred serialization formats of an Identity object are JSON, JSON-LD or IPLD
  • A resulting specification regarding Identity management respects the immutability of data

Additionally, some philosophical requirements the COALA IP group would like to address:

  • A digital Identity solution must not be based on any proprietary technology


This paper couldn't not have been written without the tremendous efforts from collaborators and employees of the following projects:

  • The Linked Content Coalition
  • IPFS
  • The Interledger Protocol
  • RDF, JSON-LD and all related Semantic Web and Linked Data standards and implementations
  • The COALA IP working group
  • BigchainDB (special thanks go to Ryan Henderson, Alberto Granzotto, Dimitri De Jonghe)
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