Non-fungible Tokens: Commercializing Exclusive Digital Art- A Companion Piece

Stacks of coins
Photo by cdd20 (Unsplash)

Emily Prieur is an IPilogue Writer and a 3L JD Candidate at Queen’s University Faculty of Law

In May 2021, a phenomenal IPilogue submission by Keir Strickland-Murphy (Osgoode Law ‘22) touched on the recent boom of Non- fungible Tokens. In this piece, I will recapitulate Strickland- Murphy’s exploration of IP ownership of Non-fungible Tokens and expand on recent developments since May.

What are non-fungible tokens?

Non-Fungible tokens (“NFTs”) are unique digital assets that can be best described as a certificate of authenticity for an object, be it physical or virtual. Blockchain acts as a ledger to secure these assets. Blockchains are often relied upon for their security, so much so that certain universities have begun storing digital diplomas through them. As described in their name, NFTs have unique properties and are not interchangeable. As such, any digital asset can be tokenized through the “minting process”, much like a refrigerator, car, or computer is given a serial number. Unique identification is a valuable tool for the many luxury brands and auction houses that have started using the blockchain to sell or auction their products. The sale of an NFT also includes a smart contract.

Strickland-Murphy noted that corporations and billionaires were early adopters of the NFT craze. Since then, public fascination has only grown since then, with celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Emily Ratajkowski jumping on board. In May 2021, Emily Ratajkowski sold an NFT called “Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution” at Christie’s for $140,000 (plus fees). The NFT came in the form of a digital-only photograph featuring the model. Ratajkowski explained the impetus for its creation in her essay “Buying Myself Back”, where she shares that the photo she shared on Instagram had been hanging in the Gagosian as part of Richard Prince’s “New Portraits” art show. Prince had been putting other people’s photos from Instagram on canvas and re-selling them for $90,000. Given this situation, Ratajkowski’s NFT auction was, as Ratajkowski explains it, an opportunity to reclaim ownership over her photo.

Recent celebrity obsession with the Bored Ape NFTs has further fueled the NFT buzz. A bundle of 101 Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs recently sold for $24 million USD at Sotheby’s. The funky cartoon images have caught the attention of Jimmy Fallon, Post Malone, and even Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban. The interest in Bored Ape is almost palpable as the release of the Yacht Club NFTs can be connected to nearly a 900% uptick in the sale of the NFT Ethereum.

If an image is attached to an NFT, does that mean I own the copyright for that image?

Where an NFT buyer has purchased an image, they do not necessarily receive the copyright associated with that image. If we refer to the computer serial number example, just because you own one version of a computer does not mean you own the patent for the underlying software in the computer. In this case, the software would still belong to the software engineers that invented it. Similarly, if you purchase a painting, you do not assume the copyright over that painting once you have purchased it.

In Canada, an express written assignment is necessary to transfer copyright from an artist to a purchaser. Therefore, the purchaser of an NFT will only receive the underlying copyright when the smart contract accompanying the NFT expresses this. Of course, unless waived by the artist, the moral rights associated with the artistic work remain with the artist. Moral rights ensure the integrity of the work, and, when reasonable, the artist’s right to association with their work by name or pseudonym.

What about copyright infringement?

The images associated with NFTs have caused some confusion. An NFT seller must hold a copyright in the image associated with the NFT they are selling. To “mint” an image as an NFT, it is crucial that a seller holds the copyright or a license. However, as long as the seller is the copyright holder, several NFTs can be associated with the same image. In short, NFT sellers can sell as many NFT’s associated with a particular image as they wish, so long as they hold the copyright to that image. If they do not own the copyright to an image, they cannot tokenize it into an NFT and lawfully sell it.

Although NFT’s are a relatively recent addition to the investment scene, numerous lawsuits involving their associated copyrights have already emerged. Rapper Jay-Z has recently sued Damon Dash, co-founder and shareholder of his record label RAF Inc., for attempting to mint one of his music albums, Reasonable Doubt, as an NFT. The court held that Dash does not own a copyright to the album simply by being a minority shareholder in the record label that owns it. As such, he cannot, in the court’s words, sell what he does not own.

Quentin Tarantino is at an impasse with his efforts to profit off the booming NFT industry. Tarantino is embroiled in a legal dispute with the film production company Miramax after announcing that he would be auctioning off excerpts of his original Pulp Fiction screenplay, which he touts include “secrets” about his creative process. Miramax is arguing that Tarantino does not own the rights to the screenplay and, therefore, selling these secrets through an NFT would constitute copyright infringement.

Old Laws Protect New Trends

Despite the law’s reputation as conservative and slow to change, in the case of NFTs, old copyright laws have proven to be tremendously practical. Although the world of blockchain is exciting, it is at this junction that potential NFT sellers should take a moment of pause amongst the excitement to contemplate the legal implications of selling NFTs with legally protected works. When infringing a copyrightable work through the minting process, one must balance the cost of copyright infringement versus the value of the NFT itself.

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