Emily Newman, MJLST Staffer
A clip of Lebron James dunking a basketball, a picture of Lindsay Lohan’s face, and an X-ray of William Shatner’s teeth—what do all these seemingly random things have in common? They’ve all been sold as NFTs for thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems like almost everyone, from celebrities to your “average Joe” is taking part in this newest trend, but do all parties really know what they’re getting themselves into? Before addressing that point, let’s look at what exactly are these “NFTs.”
What are they?
NFT stands for “non-fungible token.” In contrast to fungible items, this means that it is unique and can’t be traded or replaced for something else. As explained by Mitchell Clark from The Verge, “a bitcoin is fungible — trade one for another bitcoin, and you’ll have exactly the same thing. A one-of-a-kind trading card, however, is non-fungible. If you traded it for a different card, you’d have something completely different.” NFTs can basically be anything digital, and while headlines have been made over Twitter founder Jack Dorsey selling his first tweet as an NFT for $2.9 million, their popularity has really exploded within the world of digital art. Examples include the Nyan Cat meme selling for around $700,000 and the artist Beeple selling a collage of his work at Christie’s for $69 million (for reference, Monet’s “Nymphéas,” was sold for $54 million in 2014).
Anyone can download and view NFTs for free, so what is all the hype about? Buyers get ownership of the NFT. “To put it in terms of physical art collecting: anyone can buy a Monet print. But only one person can own the original.” This originality provides a sense of authenticity to the art, which is important these days “when forged art is proliferating online.” To facilitate this buying, selling, and reselling of digital art, several online marketplaces have emerged such as OpenSea (where one can purchase their very own CryptoKitties), Nifty Gateway, and Rarible.
NFTs, Copyright Law, and Consumer Protection
As mentioned above, NFT purchasers can own an original piece of digital art—but there’s a catch. Owning the NFT itself does not necessarily equate to ownership of the original work and its underlying copyright. In other words, buying an NFT “does not mean that the copyright to that artwork transfers to the buyer,” it is simply a “digital receipt showing that the holder owns a version of the work.” Without the underlying copyright, the purchaser of an NFT does not have the right to reproduce or prepare derivative works, or to distribute the work—that right belongs exclusively to the copyright owner.
Going forward, NFT purchasers should clarify with the seller about what exactly it is they are purchasing. Preston J. Byrne from CoinDesk encourages consumers to ask “are you buying information, copyrights, bragging rights or none or all of those things? Do you have the documentation to back all of that up?” Additionally, are you even buying an original work or did the seller create an NFT of someone else’s work? Asking these questions early on can help with avoiding “significant financial or legal pain down the road.” While it may not be the norm to receive the underlying copyright when purchasing an NFT today, and while lawmakers may not step in anytime soon (or at all) and force sellers to display their terms explicitly, it is predicted that transferring copyrights to the purchaser will be a “valued feature for NFT platforms” in the future.