Provenance and Digital Ownership


Provenance refers to the collective information that supports the existence and evolution of an object over time. Just like a family tree tells us about our relatives and ancestors, provenance may tell us about the origin, journey, and changes that something has gone through. It helps us understand the value, authenticity, and trustworthiness of things like history, artworks, collectibles, and importantly, digital data.

Digital Provenance in Web2

Thanks to modern computers and cryptography, methods for establishing verifiable, digital data provenance are more accessible than ever. Unfortunately, the incentives present during the evolution of Web2 forced most applications to permission and gatekeep the provenance associated with user data. Examples of this include social networks limiting access to their APIs and the inability for Web2 users to verifiably export application data to 3rd party applications. This also introduces platform risk as there is no ability for users to check whether their data is being modified or removed by said platforms.

Onchain Provenance in Web3

Over the past decade, blockchains such as Ethereum have demonstrated novel utility (opens in a new tab) which is uniquely enabled by strong guarantees for publicly available provenance (opens in a new tab). At the application level, the public provenance provided by these networks has sparked a net new design space for developers, brands, and individual creators through the proliferation of non fungible tokens (NFTs). While the statefulness of NFTs (such as onchain transfer/exchange) is valuable, their strong provenance underpins their value. Unfortunately, the high resource costs on Ethereum has bottlenecked the amount and types of data which can benefit from Ethereum based provenance. Although stateless provenance has been explored through trusted methods such as lazy minting via trusted intermediaries (opens in a new tab), these solutions ultimately fail to express the provenance of the underlying data object in a cryptographically robust way. Witness aims to establish a system capable of empowering users and applications with free, trustless and sovereign access to onchain provenance for any data at scale.

Provenance as Digital Ownership

In the physical world, items are inherently scarce due to their tangible nature and difficulty to produce. Ownership therefore typically represents a claim of control over the physical item.

In contrast, in the digital world, files, data, and other items can have their underlying information duplicated perfectly and at no cost. Instead, it's the origin and history of the data, rather than the data itself, that becomes valuable. This is because the provenance of a digital item is not easily duplicated and therefore is a scarce resource. When coupled with a smart contract blockchain (ie Ethereum), where abstractions such as the ERC721 token standard are designed to programmatically consume provenance, digital items can be imbued with similar properties of scarcity and ownership as their physical counterparts.

With Witness, users can establish universally verifiable claims of provenance over their data, effectively giving them ultimate control over its ownership.