Non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”) continue to dominate the crypto-zeitgeist. It is beyond dispute that they are currently a major economic and cultural force. In 2021, sales surged to approximately $25 billion. They have been featured in high profile television commercials during the Olympics and the Super Bowl. And Nike recently purchased the NFT developer RTFKT Studios, signaling its intention to be a dominant provider of digital fashion in the metaverse.
Despite all this, it remains unclear what legal rights are conveyed with the purchase of an NFT. The academic consensus is that, absent a “smart contract” that expressly includes intellectual property (“IP”) rights, purchasing an NFT does not convey any copyrights or trademark rights. Yet, the creation of an NFT (called “minting”) is almost certainly limited by recognized IP and other legal principles. These issues have begun to percolate up through the courts.
This article explores lingering, undefined NFT questions through the lens of several pending lawsuits. While many articles just describe the facts of each case, this article focuses on the most interesting legal arguments that each makes. It also identifies how decisions by these courts may form the basis of property rights within the metaverse. And ultimately, it questions whether the emergence of such lawsuits undermines blockchain as a decentralized institution.
Earlier this month sports apparel giant Nike sued StockX LLC, a Michigan-based sneaker and streetwear resale marketplace, for offering to its customers non-fungible tokens (NFTs) depicting Nike’s sneakers. The claims asserted in the February 3 complaint filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York include trademark infringement, trademark dilution and unfair competition, all stemming from inclusion of Nike’s trademarks (e.g. Nike, Air Jordan, Jumpman, the “Swoosh” Design) in the shoe images depicted in the NFTs provided by StockX.
This is not the first case of its kind. In January, Hermes sued a digital artist for unauthorized reproductions of its well-known Birkin bag in a line of NFTs released by the artist called “Metabirkins.” And before that, in November 2021, Miramax – the studio that produced the 1994 cult movie classic Pulp Fiction – filed suit to enjoin Quentin Tarantino from releasing NFTs based off of his original handwritten script of the movie, including scenes from an early script that were cut from the final version.
I don’t love surprises. Well, if you want to send me a surprise red velvet birthday cake, please feel free. Otherwise, I like being prepared – and infringement of intellectual property is one type of surprise that you can prepare yourself to handle. To assist in that effort, here’s a non-exhaustive list of questions you can ask yourself and your team members, to help determine next steps if you suspect infringement of your trademarks or copyrights. These questions may also come in handy if you find yourself on the receiving end of an allegation of infringement.
In 2016, Unicolors, Inc., sued H&M for selling clothing that infringed a Unicolor design. The group registration that Unicolors relied on included designs that had not been published as of the publication date set forth on the registrations. A copyright registration certificate is invalid if the registrant obtained it via the submission of false information that, if known to be false, would have resulted in a refusal to register. 17 U.S.C. §411(b)(2) requires that “the court shall request the Register of Copyrights to advise the court whether the inaccurate information, if known, would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse the registration.”
Ever since the artist known as Beeple1 sold an NFT of a digital collage for over $69 million at Christie’s mid-March 2021 auction, everyone in the art world — and in other communities — has been talking about NFTs. Depending on whom you listen to, NFTs are the future of art and will bring long-hoped-for transparency and accountability to the art market. Or they are a dangerous fad. Or they are “nothing sandwiches” that provide something to purchase with cryptocurrency that otherwise just sits unused in digital wallets.
So what the heck is an NFT? NFT is short for “nonfungible token”; an NFT has been defined as a digital certificate of ownership or a digital record of a transaction. The record is “minted”, i.e. created, using blockchain technology that is stored over a decentralized computer network rather than in a centralized registry. And NFTs are purchased using cryptocurrency, most often Ethereum.
On April 5, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., holding that Google’s copying of a portion of an Application Programming Interface (API) for Java SE, in which Oracle was presumed to have a copyright for purposes of the Court’s decision, to enable programmers familiar with Java programming language to work with Google’s Android platform constituted “fair use” of Oracle’s software as a matter of law because it copied only those portions of computer code that were needed to allow programmers to work in Google’s new and “transformative” Android platform.
In 2005, Google acquired Android, Inc., and began developing a software platform for use on smartphones. Its developers wrote millions of lines of new code to build that platform. Google hoped to attract software developers to create applications for use on its new Android platform. Many software developers were already proficient with the Java programming language, and were specifically familiar with Oracle’s Java SE platform, which was primarily directed to programs for use in desktop and laptop computers. To allow those programmers to be able to easily work with the new Android platform, Google copied approximately 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE program — specifically from a tool called an “Application Programming Interface,” which allows programmers to use prewritten code to enable their software to perform certain functions.
In February 2020, Faegre Baker Daniels and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP combined to form one of the nation’s 50 largest law firms. Soon after the combination, Faegre Drinker shifted to a virtual work environment to protect our clients, colleagues and loved ones during the global COVID-19 pandemic. We nevertheless remained committed to the success of our clients in a challenging year, and focused on serving clients with our new firm’s combined capabilities.
This month marks not only the first year of Faegre Drinker, but also the inaugural year of TCAM Today – Faegre Drinker’s blog covering all things trademark, copyright, advertising and media. In 2020, Faegre Drinker’s team of more than 30 T-CAM professionals shared their insight on topics ranging from social media influencers to trademark trolls.
In a year too often filled with unforeseen developments of every kind, a final surprise for many who were not paying close attention has emerged from December’s marathon stimulus and budget negotiations. This week, Congress included a trio of notable and hotly debated intellectual property measures in its multi-trillion-dollar spending and relief package. These bills, if signed into law as expected, could fundamentally alter the manner in which intellectual property owners protect and enforce their rights.
When the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (the “DMCA”) was enacted, the stated goal was to bring federal copyright law into the 21st century by providing certain immunities to internet service providers while preserving and even streamlining the ability of copyright holders to enforce their rights.
In the years immediately following the passage of the DMCA, things seemed to work smoothly. In particular, the notice-and-takedown procedure set forth in Section 512, which allows copyright owners to send written notices to parties who have allegedly used copyrighted content without authorization and which requires the recipients of such notices to promptly remove the content, was a useful tool that enabled parties to reach quick resolution of copyright disputes while avoiding costly litigation.
The global COVID-19 crisis has created dynamic shifts in how businesses source and sell goods and services. Whether those shifts are temporary or will solidify into more permanent structures ushering in a “new normal” era of consumerism, remains to be seen. As I write this, it is the weekend after Memorial Day 2020. Just yesterday, my home state of Virginia commenced phase I of a graduated reopening of the state economy, while last weekend’s headlines focused on widespread defiance of stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines as the U.S. death toll climbed towards 100,000 (a milestone it has now passed). It is clear that there are limits to our willingness to stay home, and that bodes well for the survival of some brick-and-mortar retailers. But brick-and-mortar retail and business in general may look significantly different in a post-pandemic world. The companies emerging stronger will likely be those that use this time to rethink who they are, what they do, and how they do it — and the ways in which they convey that message to consumers.
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