NFTs: The Harbinger of Property Rights in the Metaverse?

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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.

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ABCs of NFTs: A Bright Future for the Arts or Just a Flash in the Pan?

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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.

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