How to link an NFT to a digital art piece, and why it’s currently pointless

This week I have seen a lot of activity concerning non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and digital artwork. I assume that you are reading this because you already know what an NFT token is, but are a bit confused about what they signify, what the fuss is all about, and how to take advantage of them.

So instead of explaining how they work, I am going to look at the following questions:

  • What are people actually buying when they purchase an NFT from a collectibles site, and
  • Does what they get match their expectation in any kind of meaningful way?
    As of 15 March, 2021, we are in the middle of another crypto gold rush. And as is always the case with gold rushes, except for a lucky few gold prospectors, most people are going to lose out.

Although the shovel-vendors will turn a tidy profit.

And what is worse: this time the prospectors are digging for tulip bulbs, not gold, and they don’t even know it.

What’s my motivation?

I have created a beautiful and desirable digital object, and I now want to create a unique non-fungible token that somehow represents “something” about this image on a blockchain.

(This image is not actually the art in question — more on that later when I get a bit technical and legal about stuff.)


 
And here are two questions:

  • Why do I want to do it?
  • What is that “something” the token represents going to be?

Well, “why might I want to do it” is clear. I am an artist [1], and I have read articles about Beeple, Jack Dorsey, and Banksy making five, six, and seven-figure sums selling “digital art” or “digital history” using NFTs.

Of course, I want in on the action!

Let’s move on to question two, namely: what it is that I am actually going to be selling?

Finger pointing at the moon

Except for a few NFTs, such as the incredibly low resolution 24x24 pixel CryptoPunks, most non-fungible tokens are pointers. That is to say, the token contains a reference, or URL, to some other digital thing on the Internet. They’re just the equivalent of a web page address stored in a one-off cryptocoin that can’t be split into smaller parts.

NFTs are “fingers pointing at the moon”. So when you buy one, you are not buying the moon, you are buying a finger. When you purchase Jack Dorsey’s tweet using an NFT, all you are doing is buying a token with a link to that tweet, that may or may not have been “touched” by Jack Dorsey.

Nothing more.

No rights, no license, nothing other than the token on the blockchain, which you can hold or sell on as you see fit.

Doesn’t sound so exciting anymore, does it?

The first shall be first, and the last shall be last

Now a token as described above may, in itself, be worth something. It can be nice to own bragging rights or a piece of history. I am told a lot of people get satisfaction holding and gloating over old pieces of cardboard with pictures of famous men holding wooden bats.

Jack Dorsey and Banksy are famous.

And Beeple? He got there early enough, has a public track record of producing digital art, and was good enough at manipulating the PR at just the right time.

Let’s face it: you and I are not as well-known as Banksy or Jack Dorsey, and are probably not as competent as Beeple.

Post-post-post-post modern art

When Marcel Duchamp signed a common factory-produced urinal with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” and declared it a piece of art with the title “Fountain”, he produced something new, and changed the way we thought about art [2].

 
Many artists have subsequently riffed (or ripped) off the idea, and it has been well and truly exploited, probably to the limit. After all, it’s over a hundred years old.

It’s the same with NFTs now — if you haven’t already minted your token and started a massive advertising campaign, or come up with a truly fascinating twist to this story that changes the way we perceive art [3], you’ve missed the boat.

Modern art, post-modern art, and now post-post-post-post modern art is made by a small group of artists, mainly through the help of a select cabal of extremely wealthy art collectors and investors.

Time for a cocktail

So is it possible to rescue this dire situation? Blockchain researchers and enthusiasts have been interested in non-fungible tokens for quite some time, myself included. As is usually the case with blockchain, they arouse this feeling in me that somewhere, buried in the core concept, are all sorts of genuinely useful ideas and innovations just waiting to be brought into the sunlight.

 
The NFTs that are currently making the rounds are defined using a standard — the ERC721 standard. Each one uses a small computer program built on the same template, which provides functionality for creating a token, that in turn stores the current ownership of the token. The code allows the transferring it on to a new owner (who can then use the same functionality to transfer the token onward again, and so on).

So, just like traditional cryptocurrencies, NFTs instantiate a digital object with clearly defined ownership, which can be handed on to a new owner.

Can I rescue ERC721 tokens, and enable them to sell the moon rather than just the finger?

I tried just that, and made an ERC721 token, with a twist.

Here comes the science bit!

Problem 1: with NFTs, the finger is pointing at the moon, but the moon is not pointing back at the finger. If I can mint a token that points to my artwork, and my artwork contains a reference back to the token, then there’s a bi-directional link. The two are tied together.

So I did just that — if you go to this link on my website you will see that in the bottom right corner of the image, there is a reference to the very contract and token ID that instantiates my token.

This involves a bit of trickery. You have to

  • deploy the NFT contract,
  • get the contract number (mine ended up being 0x2b0D8808c17EE7D4CB749517831A09DCb6AC9413 on the Ethereum Rinkeby test network),
    put it in the artwork, then
  • generate a reference to the artwork, and finally
  • put that in the token when you mint it.

It took me three goes to get it right.

Problem 2: once a token has been minted, the data that it contains cannot be changed. That means that if my token points to a picture on my webserver, I can later swap the file out for a different one.

In the real art world, collectors do not take kindly to artists sneaking into their homes and replacing canvases on a whim.

The current solution is to put the artwork file on the Interplanetary File System (the IPFS) using a service such as Pinata or installing and using the IPFS software yourself. But the problem there is that the IPFS is like a gigantic shared Google drive, in which everyone using it has a copy of the file and can look at it or copy it any time they like.

Someone with more legal knowledge will have to comment, but my initial guess is that there is a risk you are waiving some of your copyrights by putting your file on a decentralized filesystem. Web servers cache and then delete viewed files, and there is clear legislation covering what you can and cannot do with the files you obtain. Whether this carries over to the IPFS remains to be seen.

So instead, I placed a JSON metafile on the IPFS, containing links to a watermarked thumbnail of my artwork, and … a traditional legal licensing contract! Yay, go lawyers! More on the contract later on.

 
JSON is a data format that is meant to be readable by human beings, and I think this one is fairly clear. I put the thumbnail on the IPFS (it’s the “image” link), and the contract as well (it’s the “contract” link). And the real artwork is found at the “external_url”.

Those of you who have been paying attention will see that the old problem is still there — the actual art image file is on my webserver. I still haven’t solved the problem of ensuring the artwork will persist after I stop paying my hosting bill, but let’s not worry about that for now. Perhaps it would have been fine to put it on the IPFS.

Time to move on to the contract, which is the interesting bit.

Mind your rights

The legal contract I drafted is here, and it’s pinned on the IPFS, so it won’t be going anywhere in a hurry. And as a buyer, if you’re worried, you can run your own IPFS node, or just copy it to your own hard drive, and put it back at a later date. So that’s good.

I should add that I’m not a lawyer, the contract has not been reviewed, and it’s probably junk. But it is meant for illustrative purposes. In programming terms, it’s a “proof of concept” and not a “production release”.

What drafting it did achieve, was to make me think about what I would be giving away if the copyright to my artwork were to be locked up in the ERC721 token by a standard legal contract.

Let me explain.

The writing is on the wall

If I sell a painting to a rich collector, and they hang it on the wall in their living room, I have sold the physical object. Usually, I will retain full copyright of the work, which means the collector can’t produce t-shirts or poster prints for resale without permission and a license from me. In fact, if the collector has a picture taken for an article in Forbes, for example, my painting cannot be visible in the background without my permission, because that would be a commercial reproduction rather than fair use [4].

If I attach a contract to the token, transferring all my rights (except perhaps the right to be identified as the creator of the work), then I’m giving away the right to produce derivative works and to commercially exploit the art.

Admittedly, that’s what artists-for-hire have to do, but goddammit, I’m an independent artist! This marvelous piece is meant to be for the viewing pleasure of the buyer only. I don’t want them churning out millions of digital mugs and postcards with my picture on them!

Actually, there is a serious issue here — my digital art piece is based on the cover of my book (did I mention I have a book on blockchain out? You can buy a copy at http://mybook.to/moveover for a fraction of the cost of a Banksy NFT, and it will give you hours more pleasure and insight).

 
Anyway, I need to keep control of that cover. So this is what my token gives its owner:

 
Suddenly owning an NFT associated with my digital artwork seems a lot less appealing, doesn’t it?

And yet, this is these are the only rights artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koonz, or Anish Kapoor would even consider signing over.

In conclusion

In this article I haven’t even started to tackle some of the other issues that surround artwork NFTs — what it would mean if a blockchain experienced a fork, and two contenders for one digital artwork suddenly emerged from a single one (à la Bitcoin Cash split or the Ethereum Classic fork), or if an artist minted a token signing over full copyright on the Ethereum, EOS, and Binance Chain blockchains at the same time.

Instead, let’s just finish with this observation: on September 15th, 2008, Lehman Brothers went bust, triggering the start of the global financial recession that drove Satoshi Nakamoto to invent the first blockchain.

What happened in the art world on exactly the same day?

Damien Hirst held an auction at Sotheby’s.

Multi-millionaire artist Damien Hirst wildly exceeded expectations on Tuesday with a record-breaking sale of 218 items for 111 million pounds, underscoring the resilience of the high-end art market [5]

The world of art. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Acknowledgment

I’d like to thank Charles Dray for conversations that inspired the investigation which produced this article. Charles is the current holder of the token described above, and you can visit his art space, “TheNFTGallery”, where my amazing NFT-backed digital art is on display, at https://play.decentraland.org/ . Create an avatar, enter the world, follow the tutorial, and then click the map box at the top left and scroll to -21,70. You have to press Esc to unpin your cursor.

Here comes the call to action

If you found this article interesting and educational then, seriously, go and buy my book: http://mybook.to/moveover — it’s full of understandable chapters that will give you similar insights into blockchain in general. And it has a really nice cover.

Footnotes

[1] Okay, I’m not an artist, I’m a blockchain researcher. But in 1998, for half a year, I had a shot at it and sold precisely two paintings for £600. And read too much about the history of modern art.

[2] There was a huge discussion and outcry about it, and even judges had to weigh in on whether it actually constituted art. Duchamp made art history.

[3] I’ll save you some time: you haven’t come up with a truly fascinating twist to this story that changes the way we perceive art. You and I don’t get to write chapters in this story.

[4] This article — Art Copyright, Explained — provides a good explanation of the copyrights that an artist can retain after selling a particular physical piece of art.

[5] Reuters (2008), Hirst’s art sale defies economic blues

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Comments

Manny Amadeo Manny Amadeo March 26

It looks like many of the issues raised in your excellent piece are also mentioned in this brief by the law firms of O'Melveny & Myers LLP "Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs): When Collecting Meets Crypto, Legal Challenges Abound"  https://www.omm.com/resources/alerts-and-publications/alerts/non-fungible-tokens-when-collecting-meets-crypto-legal-challenges-abound/ 

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