Token gating is not a good long-term solution for digital content

Darkblock
7 min readMay 17, 2023

“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 enable delivery of exclusive content in a web3-native way (i.e., a decentralized way).

Darkblock enables creators to encrypt, permanently store, and immutably attach multimedia content to their NFTs, which only the NFT’s owner can unlock. Because Darkblock is a protocol, our goal is for people to be able to unlock and access their NFTs’ multimedia content anywhere they interact with their NFTs, which is why we call it “ decentralized unlockable content.”

So what’s the difference between that and token gating?

In both cases, the goal is to provide access to exclusive content-the difference is in how that’s achieved.

Let’s dig in.

Token Gating

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 control access to.

That is a centralized way of handling digital assets, and comes with all the well-known downsides of centralization (e.g., users at the mercy of the platform, at risk of 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 using NFTs to sell their ebook, 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 owners of the NFTs that represent ownership in that ebook would need to connect their wallet and prove they own the NFT in order to get through the gate and access the ebook, which might be stored in a Dropbox or Drive folder, Amazon S3 bucket, or even IPFS.

In this scenario, the NFT is nothing but an access pass-no different than a ticket to get through the gate at a concert. It may represent ownership in an ebook, but that ownership is illusory.

If this model sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Token gating recreates Kindle’s business model-except Kindle gates access 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 the equivalent of 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 its 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.

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.

Decentralized Unlockable 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-decentralized unlockable 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.

In order to decentralize content, we need to remove centralized authority from three areas: encryption, storage, and access.

The Darkblock Protocol covers decentralized encryption (we’re progressively decentralizing and aim to be fully decentralized after the launch of v2 of the protocol). Arweave (aka the “permaweb”) stores the encrypted files in a decentralized manner. But what about access?

Decentralized access is where Darkblock really shines.

Content stored in darkblocks and attached to NFTs can be fetched and unlocked from multiple places, including web3 platforms that integrate the protocol, the artist’s website using our easily embeddable widget, the Darkblock app, or even on OpenSea while using our Chrome extension. Decentralized access means the content can be unlocked regardless of the status of a single, centralized website or platform.

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.

Decentralized unlockable content is superior to token-gating in several ways:

Ownership: With token gating, the user only has access to the content as long as the website or platform is functional. The NFT itself is nothing more than an access pass. Decentralized unlockable content, on the other hand, is attached to the NFT itself via immutable metadata, which the owner can access any time they want in a decentralized manner that provides true ownership.

Decentralization: Unlike token gating, which relies on a centralized platform to manage access to the content, decentralized unlockable content is truly decentralized. The NFT serves as the key to unlock the content, and as long as the user owns the NFT, they can access the content in multiple ways, even if a single platform goes offline.

Censorship-resistance: With token gating, the platform has the power to censor or remove content at any time, without warning. But with decentralized unlockable content, the content is stored on Arweave, which is the equivalent of a blockchain (though they call it a “blockweave,” which makes it impossible to censor or remove. Once the content is stored on Arweave and attached to an NFT, it’s there forever.

Composability: With token gating, the platform sets the rules for how the token can be used to access the content. That’s it. Darkblock is baking features into the protocol that will enable creators and NFT owners to interact with their unlockable content in new ways, such as the ability to rent temporary access to the content.

Conclusion

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 NFT book 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?

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.

Darkblock, on the other hand, takes advantage of the unique properties of blockchain technology to create a truly decentralized, trustless way of providing access to exclusive content-decentralized unlockable content

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:

  1. Visit app.darkblock.io and connect a wallet
  2. 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)
  3. Upload multimedia content and let the Darkblock Protocol do the rest
  4. The protocol encrypts the content
  5. The protocol stores the newly encrypted content on Arweave, a decentralized blockchain-like storage protocol
  6. The protocol immutably attaches the darkblock to the NFT or the collection via metadata
  7. 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

Originally published at https://www.darkblock.io.

--

--

Darkblock

Darkblock is a protocol for decentralized unlockable content