“Darkblock sounds cool, but if I want to give my community exclusive access to content, then why wouldn’t I just token gate it?”
This is a great question, and one I get often.
When talking about Darkblock, I avoid using the term “token gating” because the term has certain connotations that don’t align with how we go about enabling the delivery of exclusive content in a web3-native way (i.e., in a way that is decentralized, portable, and composable).
Darkblock enables creators to encrypt, permanently store, and immutably attach multimedia files to their NFTs, creating what we call token-bound content.
Binding files to an NFT has certain advantages over locking files in a walled garden and simply using an NFT as an access pass. In both cases, the goal is to provide access to exclusive content—the difference is in how that’s achieved.
Let’s dig in.
If you’re “gating” access to something, that implies there’s a gate—and where there’s a gate, there’s a wall surrounding whatever it is the gatekeeper is trying to protect.
That is a centralized way of handling digital assets, and comes with all the well-known downsides of centralization—users are at the mercy of the platform, creators risk being de-platformed or losing access because the website disappears, gated content is susceptible to censorship, etc.
Let’s use ebooks as an example to further explore the token-gating model.
NFTs have been used successfully to sell digital art and music, but in those cases the actual content is not protected (i.e., the JPEG is right-click-savable and the MP3 is freely listenable). That’s because NFTs protect ownership, not the actual digital asset. So what’s a creator to do—an author in this example—if they recognize the value of selling their ebook as an NFT, but want to protect their IP so that only buyers can read it? In the past, token gating the ebook behind a website was the only option.
If they token gated their ebooks, the buyers of the NFT would need to connect their wallet and prove they own the NFT in order to access the ebook, which would likely be centrally stored, maybe in a Dropbox or Drive folder, Amazon S3 bucket, or even IPFS.
An NFT may represent ownership in an ebook, but if that ebook is token gated, that ownership is illusory.
In this scenario, the NFT is nothing but an access pass—no different than a ticket to get through the gate at a concert. An NFT may represent ownership in an ebook, but if that ebook is token gated, that ownership is illusory.
If this model sounds familiar, it’s because it is!
Token gating recreates Kindle’s business model of locking ebooks in its walled garden and gating access, though with a username and password rather than an NFT. In fact, this is the same model all web2 content platforms use: Audible, Apple Movies, Spotify, etc. In our existing web2 world, ownership in the digital content we “buy” is illusory. You don’t own that movie you “bought” on Apple Movies, or the audiobook you “bought” on Audible, or the album you downloaded onto your phone from Spotify. Rather, you’re paying a licensing fee to access and consume the content—one that could be revoked at any time if the platform decides to remove the content.
Whoever controls the walled garden—whether it’s gated by a username or NFT—controls the ebook, including the ability to revise or censor the file at any time, or delete it outright. Even if there’s no ill intent, what if the file is accidentally moved to a different Dropbox folder or the author forgets to pay their hosting fees? A future buyer of that NFT Book would quickly discover that they don’t really own anything but the underlying token.
Amazon recently received flak for censoring ebooks by well-known authors like Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and R.L. Stine. People who had bought those ebooks years ago woke up one day to discover the books had been edited in various ways. In other cases, Amazon has deleted entire ebooks from peoples’ Kindle libraries for various reasons.
If you haven’t already realized, it all comes down to centralization. If digital content is controlled by a centralized platform, it’s always at risk of being censored or removed without warning. And it’s never truly owned.
The alternative is to use blockchain tech’s capabilities to introduce decentralization into the Creator Economy and how people interact with digital content—the same way it’s being used to decentralize finance and social media.
Decentralized content means users hold the keys to the content and choose where to consume it, not the platforms… which brings us to token-bound content.
So if you want to provide exclusive digital content, but don’t want to lock the files in a centralized walled garden and gate access to them, what’s the alternative?
Store them in the open—just encrypt them first.
Darkblock’s solution—token-bound content—takes advantage of blockchain technology and a cryptographic technique known as proxy re-encryption to create a decentralized, trustless way of delivering—and monetizing—exclusive content.
Darkblock’s app, which is built atop the protocol, lets creators encrypt and immutably attach multimedia files to their NFTs, creating token-bound content that is decentralized (i.e., not tied to any one platform), portable, composable, and capable of being truly owned by the NFT’s owner via decentralized storage and access.
Token-bound files are portable
By binding encrypted files to the NFT, that token-bound content can now be fetched and unlocked from any app or marketplace that integrates the protocol. We also make it simple for a creator to embed the Darkblock Viewer (i.e., an interface with the protocol where NFT owners can unlock and consume their content) via a simple iframe embed. We even have a Chrome extension you can use to unlock your token-bound assets right on OpenSea. Decentralized access means the files are accessible regardless of the status of any single, centralized website or platform.
For example, I can unlock and read my Omega Runner comic book by connecting my wallet to the project’s website, our app, or even on OpenSea via our Chrome extension.
Token-bound files are composable
Any app or game that incorporates the Darkblock protocol can integrate an owner’s token-bound files into its product. Remember how much hype Loot Project received for its simple text-based NFTs that included various weapons and magical armor as traits? People touted it as an example of how NFTs can be composable and how a disparate network of games, marketplaces, and other apps could now be developed that integrated a person’s Loot NFTs and their loot. Darkblock enables entire digital files to be composable rather than just traits.
For example, a developer built an app called Web3 Music Vault that scans a person’s wallet for token-bound MP3s attached via the Darkblock Protocol, decrypts them on the fly and then plays them on the user’s Alexa device! “Hey, Alexa. Play my NFT music.”
Other examples of composability could be a game or metaverse that uploads a user’s token-bound 3D assets at runtime or a digital ebook or comic reader that pulls in all token-bound PDFs and EPUBs.
Token-bound files are truly owned (almost)
To shift from the platform-centric content model ubiquitous in web2 to a web3 content model that empowers creators and users alike, decentralization is necessary. The Darkblock Protocol will accomplish this by removing centralized authority from three areas: storage, access and encryption.
✅ Storage — Darkblock Protocol stores encrypted files on Arweave (aka the “permaweb”)
✅ Access — By binding files to the NFT, the token-bound content travels with the NFT. This means the owner decides where they access those files, which brings us back to the portability we enable (see above).
❌ Encryption — The beta version of the Darkblock Protocol still requires some centralization when it comes to the creation and storage of encryption keys. But we’re progressively decentralizing and V2 of the protocol will be fully decentralized (i.e., a decentralized network of nodes that are incentivized to create and store encryption keys in their computer’s trusted execution environments)
Our ultimate mission is for a person to be able to unlock and access their NFT’s unlockable content, whether a film or ebook, from anywhere they interact with their NFTs, whether that’s their wallet or a marketplace. The Darkblock Protocol can make that a reality.
While token gating may be a familiar and convenient way to provide access to exclusive content, it ultimately falls short when it comes to decentralization, flexibility, censorship-resistance, and providing true ownership over digital content. It’s also short-sighted.
If an author relies on token gating to sell an ebook, someone who mints one tomorrow can be confident the ebook will be accessible to them. But what about someone who wants to buy that ebook NFT 10 years from now? Can they be confident that if they buy the NFT it will get them access to an ebook as opposed to running into a 404 message or broken Dropbox link? No, they can’t. But if the ebook is decentralized token-bond content, they can have confidence it’ll stick around.
If we believe NFTs provide the delivery and ownership technology of the future, then we need to be thinking in decades—not days. That’s what Darkblock is doing.
For a Digital Goods Economy to flourish, it will need to not only leverage blockchain technology to track ownership and provenance, but be built atop a decentralized protocol that enables digital assets to be permanently accessible, censorship-resistant, and not right click savable. That’s the Darkblock Protocol.
As Marc Andreesen always reminds us, “Buy physical copies of any book you plan to read in the future. Do it now.”
Hopefully, if he reads this, he’ll feel confident adding in the future: “…or ebooks protected by the Darkblock Protocol.”
How to attach decentralized unlockable content to your NFT
Creators can use the Darkblock app, built atop the Darkblock Protocol, to easily attach any type of multimedia content to their NFTs as decentralized unlockable content. The steps are simple:
- Visit app.darkblock.io and connect a wallet
- Navigate to the individual NFT being upgraded or use the collection-upgrade tool to attach content to an entire collection (or to NFTs with certain traits within a collection)
- Upload multimedia content and let the Darkblock Protocol do the rest
- The protocol encrypts the content
- The protocol stores the newly encrypted content on Arweave, a decentralized blockchain-like storage protocol
- The protocol immutably attaches the darkblock to the NFT or the collection via metadata
- Creators can then sell their exclusive content by selling the NFT or let their existing collectors know they have new exclusive content waiting for them