What the Hell is Digital Ownership?

Joe Coll

Mar 25, 2024

In our first blog, we introduced Witness and our vision for making digital ownership accessible and incentivized at any scale. Unlike the physical world, where ownership is defined by possession of a tangible or scarce object, digital objects can be easily copied and precisely duplicated at virtually no cost. Since the ownership of a digital object cannot be verified by possession or scarcity alone, the tangible value shifts from the object itself to its underlying provenance. In this second blog, we aim to describe our framework for defining digital ownership, which relies on the fundamental properties of provenance.

Let’s start by considering a file - any digital object regardless of format, size, storage location or function. To define its provenance, we start by asking: “what properties could someone potentially verify about a file”? We believe there are three fundamental properties, which must be publicly and cryptographically verifiable, in order for a file to possess the requirements for digital ownership.


3 Properties of Verifiable Provenance

1. Content: what is it?

The exact contents of a file can be verified with a unique, cryptographic hash (also known as a checksum). Thanks to the properties of hash functions, you can verify what the file is and whether it has been modified. 

  • ELI5: Bob sends Alice the hash of a file he wants her to download. Alice downloads the file from Craig, who she doesn’t trust. If the hash of the downloaded file matches the hash Bob sent her, Alice doesn’t need to trust that Craig gave her the correct file.

  • In Web2: VirusTotal calculates a hash when you upload a file, and uses the hash to check if that exact file has been previously scanned by the service.

  • In Web3: A newly proposed block on a blockchain must include the correct hash of the previous block to ensure a consistent and linear history.

2. Authorship: who signed it?

The authorship associated with a file can be verified with cryptographic signatures and corresponding public keys. If the same public key is associated with multiple identities (see ENS, Clusters), you can verify who signed the file.

  • ELI5: Bob signs a file and tells Alice his corresponding public key. Alice downloads the signed file from Craig, who she doesn’t trust. If Alice verifies Bob’s signature on the file, she knows Craig couldn’t have spoofed the file.

  • In Web2: Modern email clients sign every email (via DKIM) so that the receiver can verify (via DNS) that the message was not spoofed or modified by an adversary.

  • In Web3: Every transaction broadcast to a blockchain must contain a verifiable signature to ensure the owner of an account approved the transaction.

3. Chronology: when did it exist?

The chronology of a file can be verified with an inclusion proof and a corresponding verifiable data structure (see VDS) such as a public blockchain. If an inclusion proof is available, you can verify when a file existed relative to other files.

  • ELI5: Bob creates and signs a file on January 1st, 2023. A year later, Alice downloads the file from Bob, but she does not trust Bob and thinks he may have modified the file and resigned it. If Alice verifies an inclusion proof for the downloaded file, she can verify that it existed on January 1st, 2023 and that Bob could not have modified the file since then.

  • In Web2: Every SSL certificate on the modern internet must be included in a VDS (see Certificate Transparency) before an internet browser will use it to establish an encrypted connection (see HTTPS). This ensures Certificate Authorities can be audited and held accountable in the event that their keys are used to issue malicious certificates.

  • In Web3: Witness allows users to create inclusion proofs for any file without upfront or dynamic onchain transaction fees. These proofs allow anyone to verify when a file was last modified using only the proof and one of the many public blockchains where Witness Protocol is deployed.


In this blog post, we explored the key properties required for establishing publicly verifiable provenance – content integrity, authorship verification, and chronological existence – which form the foundation for digital ownership. By leveraging cryptographic primitives such as Witness Protocol, we can create a framework that enables trustless verification of digital ownership for any scale of data. We encourage everyone to try the protocol right now by cosigning this blog! In future blogs, we’ll share more about the novel use cases and incentive mechanisms that Witness Protocol unlocks.

At Witness, we are empowering anyone to create and issue digital ownership without the friction or upfront costs typically associated with public blockchains. We believe scaling access to onchain verifiability has the potential to unlock net new ownership, coordination and incentive mechanisms for application developers, creators and users alike.If you are interested in leveraging Witness as a part of your application or use case today, feel free to reach out to our team via hello@witness.co. If you are also motivated by these ideas, we are hiring engineers and would love to discuss our open roles with you.

Special thanks to Sina Sabet and Josh Benaron for feedback and discussions.

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