NFTs, Minting and Copyright: What You Should Know as an Artist

For contemporary artists, attaching work to the blockchain may seem like a secure and verifiable way to sell art online. But are NFTs protected by copyright? Let’s find out!

A $69.3 million digital art sale using non-fungible tokens – or NFTs – has sparked interest in a relatively new technology. Here’s what you need to know about what tokens are and how they are used to bring dollars from digital art sales into line with paintings and sculptures.

What is NFT Art?

NFT art is artwork that is embedded by artists in a blockchain system and has its own unique certificate of authenticity. These can be new works, or they can be adaptations of existing works: they can include “digital doubles” of paintings by old masters or, for example, short GIF versions or digital images of works by contemporary video artists. This field has been attracting people, art and money magnetically for the last year: the NFT market was valued at 1.3 billion dollars at the beginning of 2021.

What is Minting?

The Ethereum blockchain is a public ledger that is unchangeable and tamper-proof, and minting an NFT is how your digital art becomes a part of it. NFTs are tokens that are “minted” after they are created, similar to how metal coins are minted and put to circulation. Your digital artwork is represented as an NFT, allowing it to be bought and sold on the market, as well as digitally tracked as it is resold or collected in the future.

To begin, you’ll need to make a digital wallet. Then you should purchase some bitcoin to offset the minting costs. Finally, you connect your wallet to an NFT marketplace online (such as Rarible, OpenSea, or Polygon). You’re ready to mint your NFT once you’ve completed these steps.

To do so, you’ll need to upload a digital representation of your NFT-to-be in a JPEG, MP3, GIF, PNG, or another format that the desired marketplace will accept. Don’t forget to give your token a name, a description, a price, and other metadata.

When you’ve finished, the marketplace will charge you a modest cost for posting it, which will be deducted from your account.

It becomes “minted” after you add the metadata and publish it. Your NFT can be put for sale on the marketplace at that point.

Ownership of Digital Works of Art: The Problem the NFT is Trying to Solve

Although the sale of art has been a concept for centuries, it has largely existed only in the physical realm. Unlike physical art sales, where original paintings or sculptures can change hands, the same cannot be done with digital works of art.

By its very nature, making an exact copy of a digital artwork is relatively trivial.

Although you can make prints based on a physical painting, the buyers of those prints know full well that they are not buying the original at all. This cannot be done with digital images using the original files, since the same files can easily be copied and sold again.

Since large art sales usually involve original works, the last thing a buyer wants is to see the perceived value of the artwork they purchase diminished. A second identical drawing reduces the value of the original because it is no longer unique.

The NFT tries to get around this by effectively acting as a certificate of ownership for the artwork. Although a digital work of art can be copied and widely distributed, there will only be one or more valid NFTs applicable to a work of art.

Mona Lisa prints can be hung in frames all over the world, but the real thing belongs to only one person.

NFT "Ownership"

While the discussion of ownership is fairly straightforward for physical works of art, the same cannot be said for NFT. While NFT assumes that the owner “owns” the artwork as presented, it is more than that.

For starters, the NFT owner will be granted certain rights to use the digital file from the artist, determining how it can be presented to the public, if at all. This might include restrictions on where it can appear, or prohibitions against using it in certain ways.

Artists may also retain the ability to reproduce the artwork themselves, despite the sale of the NFT, and may retain the ultimate copyright in the artwork. The artist may even receive a share of the resale of the NFT over and above the original sale, depending on how the NFT is configured.

Moreover, owning the NFT does not necessarily mean “owning” the entire work.

For example, youtuber Logan Paul monetized a video stream in which he unboxed pokemon cards. Video clips with highlights were created, along with NFTs for each, and were sold out.

Each NFT would represent actual ownership of a particular video clip, but not the entire stream.

There is also the issue of uniqueness, since the artist doesn’t have to create just one NFT. Instead, they can mint multiple unique tokens at once with a limited number in circulation that will not increase.

Again, using Logan Paul as an example, he sold $504,990 in NFTs that consisted of digital pokémon cards with his image on them. The collection consisted of 945 “cards” of four levels of rarity.

Ultimately, NFT buyers through exchanges such as Nifty Gateway or OpenSea receive NFTs that they can store in a compatible cryptocurrency wallet, potentially an image or copy of the digital file, as well as information that they “own” the creative asset.

Copyright and Trust Issues

Because NFTs can be created from almost anything digital, and these digital elements can easily be copied, there is the potential for abuse. In particular, nothing prevents someone from creating their own NFTs based on digital elements created by others.

In one example published by Decrypt on March 13, a Weird Undead artist discovered that people were stealing digital artwork from their tweets. The images were used to create NFTs and sold on the NFT marketplace, sales that the artist tried to stop.

Weird Undead calls the practice “insane and senseless copyright infringement,” which only benefits the markets and the people taking the images, not the artists themselves.

The practice is not limited to artwork. There have also been problems with tokenizing people’s tweets of others as NFT and selling them. Again, this practice does not involve the person who wrote the original tweet, who will ultimately own the copyright to the text.

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