This article may contain wording that promotes the subject through exaggeration of unnoteworthy facts. (May 2021)
A non-fungible token (NFT) is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger. NFTs can also be associated with reproducible digital files such as photos, videos, and audio. NFTs use a digital ledger to provide a public certificate of authenticity or proof of ownership, but do not restrict the sharing or copying of the underlying digital files or the re-creation of identical NFTs. The lack of interchangeability (fungibility) distinguishes NFTs from blockchain cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin.
NFTs have seen some use as a speculative investment, and they have drawn criticism with respect to the energy cost and carbon footprint associated with validating blockchain transactions as well as their frequent use in art scams.
An NFT is a unit of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, which can be sold and traded. The NFT can be associated with a particular digital or physical asset (such as a file or a physical object) and a license to use the asset for a specified purpose. An NFT (and, if applicable, the associated license to use, copy or display the underlying asset) can be traded and sold on digital markets. The extralegal nature of NFT trading usually results in an informal exchange of ownership over the asset that has no legal basis for enforcement, often conferring little more than use as a status symbol.
NFTs function like cryptographic tokens, but, unlike cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, NFTs are not mutually interchangeable, hence not fungible. While all bitcoins are equal, each NFT may represent a different underlying asset and thus may have a different value. NFTs are created when blockchains string records of cryptographic hash, a set of characters identifying a set of data, onto previous records therefore creating a chain of identifiable data blocks. This cryptographic transaction process ensures the authentication of each digital file by providing a digital signature that is used to track NFT ownership. However, data links that point to details such as where the art is stored can be affected by link rot.
Ownership of an NFT does not inherently grant copyright or intellectual property rights to whatever digital asset the token represents. While someone may sell an NFT representing their work, the buyer will not necessarily receive copyright privileges when ownership of the NFT is changed and so the original owner is allowed to create more NFTs of the same work. In that sense, an NFT is merely a proof of ownership that is separate from a copyright. According to legal scholar Rebecca Tushnet, "In one sense, the purchaser acquires whatever the art world thinks they have acquired. They definitely do not own the copyright to the underlying work unless it is explicitly transferred." In practice, NFT purchasers do not generally acquire the copyright of the underlying artwork.
Early history (2014–2017)
The first known "NFT", Quantum, was created by Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash in May 2014, consisting of a video clip made by McCoy's wife Jennifer. McCoy registered the video on the Namecoin blockchain and sold it to Dash for $4, during a live presentation for the Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum in New York City. McCoy and Dash referred to the technology as "monetized graphics". A non-fungible, tradable blockchain marker was explicitly linked to a work of art, via on-chain metadata (enabled by Namecoin). This is in contrast to the multi-unit, fungible, metadata-less "colored coins" of other blockchains and Counterparty.
In October 2015, the first NFT project, Etheria, was launched and demonstrated at DEVCON 1 in London, Ethereum's first developer conference, three months after the launch of the Ethereum blockchain. Most of Etheria's 457 purchasable and tradable hexagonal tiles went unsold for more than five years until March 13, 2021, when renewed interest in NFTs sparked a buying frenzy. Within 24 hours, all tiles of the current version and a prior version, each hardcoded to 1 ETH ($0.43 at the time of launch), were sold for a total of $1.4 million.
The term "NFT" only gained currency with the ERC-721 standard, first proposed in 2017 via the Ethereum GitHub, following the launch of various NFT projects that year. These include Curio Cards, CryptoPunks (a project to trade unique cartoon characters, released by the American studio Larva Labs on the Ethereum blockchain) and the Decentraland platform. All three projects were referenced in the original proposal along with rare Pepe trading cards.
Increased public awareness (2017–present)
The 2017 online game CryptoKitties was monetized by selling tradable cat NFTs, and its success brought some public attention to NFTs.
In the early months of 2021, interest in NFTs increased after a number of high-profile sales and art auctions.
Commonly associated files
NFTs have been used as a means of exchanging digital tokens that link to a digital file. Ownership of an NFT is often associated with a license to use the underlying digital asset, but generally does not confer copyright to the buyer. Some agreements only grant a license for personal, non-commercial use, while other licenses also allow commercial use of the underlying digital asset.
Digital art is a common use case for NFTs. High-profile auctions of digital art as NFTs have received considerable public attention, with the work "Merge" by artist Pak being the most expensive NFT with a a price of $91.8 million dollars and Everydays: the First 5000 Days, by artist Mike Winkelmann (known professionally as Beeple), the second most expensive auction at US$69.3 million in 2021.
Some NFT collections, including EtherRocks and CryptoPunks are examples of generative art, where many different images can be created by assembling a selection of simple picture components in different combinations.
In March 2021, the blockchain company Injective Protocol bought a $95,000 original screen print entitled Morons (White) from English graffiti artist Banksy, and filmed somebody burning it with a cigarette lighter, with the video being minted and sold as an NFT. The person who destroyed the artwork, who called themselves "Burnt Banksy", described the act as a way to transfer a physical work of art to the NFT space.
NFTs can be used to represent in-game assets, such as digital plots of land, which some commentators describe as being controlled "by the user" instead of the game developer by allowing assets to be traded on third-party marketplaces without permission from the game developer.
CryptoKitties was an early successful blockchain online game where players adopt and trade virtual cats. The monetization of NFTs within the game raised a $12.5 million investment, with some kitties selling for over $100,000 each. Following its success, CryptoKitties was added to the ERC-721 standard, which was created in January 2018 (and finalized in June). A similar NFT-based online game, Axie Infinity, was launched in March 2018.
In December 2021, Ubisoft announced Ubisoft Quartz, “an NFT initiative which allows people to buy artificially scarce digital items using cryptocurrency". The announcement has raised significant criticism, with 96% dislike ratio over the YouTube announcement video, which has since been unlisted. Some Ubisoft developers have also raised their concern over the announcement.
In February 2021, NFTs reportedly generated around $25 million within the music industry, with artists selling artwork and music as NFT tokens. On February 28, 2021, electronic dance musician 3LAU sold a collection of 33 NFTs for a total of $11.7 million to commemorate the three-year anniversary of his Ultraviolet album. On March 3, 2021, an NFT was made to promote the Kings of Leon album When You See Yourself. Other musicians that have used NFTs include American rapper Lil Pump, Grimes, visual artist Shepard Fairey in collaboration with record producer Mike Dean, and rapper Eminem.
In May 2018, 20th Century Fox partnered with Atom Tickets and released limited-edition Deadpool 2 digital posters to promote the film. They were available from OpenSea and the GFT exchange. In March 2021 Adam Benzine's 2015 documentary Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah became the first motion picture and documentary film to be auctioned as an NFT.
Other projects in the film industry using NFTs include the announcement that an exclusive NFT artwork collection will be released for Godzilla vs. Kong and director Kevin Smith announcing in April 2021 that his forthcoming horror movie Killroy Was Here would be released as an NFT. The 2021 film Zero Contact, directed by Rick Dugdale and starring Anthony Hopkins, was also released as an NFT.
Other associated files
A number of internet memes have been associated with NFTs, which were minted and sold by their creators or by their subjects. Examples include Doge, an image of a Shiba Inu dog whose NFT was sold for $4 million in June 2021, as well as Charlie Bit My Finger, Nyan Cat and Disaster Girl.
In May 2021, UC Berkeley announced that it would be auctioning NFTs for the patent disclosures for two Nobel Prize-winning inventions: CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and cancer immunotherapy. The university will continue to own the patents for these inventions, as the NFTs relate only to the university patent disclosure form, an internal form used by the university for researchers to disclose inventions.
The first credited political protest NFT ("Destruction of Nazi Monument Symbolizing Contemporary Lithuania") was a video filmed by Professor Stanislovas Tomas on April 8, 2019, and minted on March 29, 2021. In the video, Tomas uses a sledgehammer to destroy a state-sponsored Lithuanian plaque located on the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences honoring Nazi war criminal Jonas Noreika.
In early 2020, the developer of CryptoKitties, Dapper Labs, released the beta version of NBA TopShot, a project to sell tokenized collectibles of NBA highlights. The project was built on top of Flow, a newer and more efficient blockchain compared to Ethereum. Later that year, the project was released to the public and reported over $230 million in gross sales as of February 28, 2021.
NFTs representing certain digital collectables and artworks have seen considerable use as a speculative asset. The NFT buying surge was called an economic bubble by experts, who also compared it to the Dot-com bubble. In March 2021 Mike Winkelmann called NFTs an "irrational exuberance bubble". By mid-April 2021, demand appeared to have substantially subsided, causing prices to fall significantly.
NFTs, as with other blockchain securities and traditional art sales, can potentially be utilized for money laundering. Auction platforms for NFT sales may potentially face regulatory pressure for compliance with existing anti-money laundering legislation. Gou Wenjun, the director of the Anti-Money Laundering Monitoring and Analysis Centre for the People's Bank of China, has expressed that NFTs could “easily become money-laundering tools." Gou elaborated that there is an increasing unlawful exploitation of various new cryptographic technologies, and that illicit actors often self-identify as innovators of the financial technology sector.
Standards in blockchains
Specific token standards have been created to support various blockchain use-cases. Ethereum was the first blockchain to support NFTs with its ERC-721 standard and is currently the most widely used. Many other blockchains have added or plan to add support for NFTs with their growing popularity.
ERC-721 was the first standard for representing non-fungible digital assets on the Ethereum blockchain. ERC-721 is an inheritable Solidity smart contract standard, meaning that developers can create new ERC-721-compliant contracts by copying from a reference implementation. ERC-721 provides core methods that allow tracking the owner of a unique identifier, as well as a permissioned way for the owner to transfer the asset to others.
The ERC-1155 standard offers "semi-fungibility", as well as providing an analogue to ERC-721 functionality (meaning that an ERC-721 asset could be built using ERC-1155). Unlike ERC-721 where a unique ID represents a single asset, the unique ID of an ERC-1155 token represent a class of assets, and there is an additional quantity field to represent the amount of the class that a particular wallet has. The assets under the same class are interchangeable, and the user can transfer any amount of assets to others.
Because Ethereum currently has high transaction fees (known as gas fees), layer 2 solutions for Ethereum have emerged which also supports NFTs:
- Immutable X – Immutable X is a layer 2 protocol for Ethereum designed specifically for NFTs, utilizing ZK rollups to eliminate gas fees for transactions.
- Polygon – Formerly known as the Matic Network, Polygon is a proof-of-stake blockchain which is supported by major NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea.
- Bitcoin Cash – Bitcoin Cash supports NFTs and powers the Juungle NFT marketplace.
- Cardano – Cardano introduced native tokens that enable the creation of NFTs without smart contracts with its March 2021 update. Cardano NFT marketplaces include CNFT and Theos.
- Flow – The Flow blockchain, which uses a proof of stake consensus model, supports NFTs. CryptoKitties plans to switch from Ethereum to Flow in the future.
- GoChain – GoChain, a blockchain which bills itself as 'eco-friendly', powers the Zeromint NFT marketplace and the VeVe app.
- Solana – The Solana blockchain also supports non-fungible tokens.
- Tezos – Tezos is a blockchain network that operates on proof of stake and supports the sale of NFT art.
In popular culture
The 2021 Paramount+ television film South Park: Post Covid: The Return of Covid featured an adult version of Butters Stotch in his Professor Chaos persona tricking people into purchasing NFTs in 2061. Although the film portrays them as a poor investment, he has grown so adept at selling them that he is locked in a mental institution.
Issues and criticisms
NFTs involving digital art generally do not store the associated artwork file on the blockchain due to its size. The token functions in a way more similar to a certificate of ownership, with a web address pointing to the piece of art in question, making the art still subject to link rot. Because NFTs are functionally separate from the underlying artworks, anybody can easily save a copy of an NFT's image, popularly through a right click. NFT supporters disparage this duplication of NFT artwork as a "right-clicker mentality", with one collector quoted by Vice comparing the value of a purchased NFT to that of a status symbol "to show off that they can afford to pay that much".
The "right-clicker mentality" phrase spread virally after its introduction, particularly among those that were critical of the NFT marketplace who used the term to flaunt the ability to capture digital art backed by NFT with ease. This criticism was promoted by Australian programmer Geoffrey Huntley who created "The NFT Bay", modeled after The Pirate Bay. The NFT Bay advertised a torrent file purported to contain 19 terabytes of digital art NFT images. Huntley compared his work to an art project from Pauline Pantsdown, and hoped the site would help educate users on what NFTs are and are not.
NFT purchases and sales are enmeshed in a controversy regarding the high energy usage, and consequent greenhouse gas emissions, associated with blockchain transactions. A major aspect of this is the proof-of-work protocol required to regulate and verify blockchain transactions on networks such as Ethereum, which consumes a large amount of electricity; estimating the carbon footprint of a given NFT transaction involves a variety of assumptions about the manner in which that transaction is set up on the blockchain, the economic behavior of blockchain miners (and the energy demands of their mining equipment), as well as the amount of renewable energy being used on these networks. There are also conceptual questions, such as whether the carbon footprint estimate for an NFT purchase should incorporate some portion of the ongoing energy demand of the underlying network, or just the marginal impact of that particular purchase. An analogy that's been described for this is the footprint associated with an additional passenger on a given airline flight.
Some more recent NFT technologies use alternative validation protocols, such as proof of stake, that have much less energy usage for a given validation cycle. Other approaches to reducing electricity include the use of off-chain transactions as part of minting an NFT. A number of NFT art sites are also looking to address these concerns, and some are moving to using technologies and protocols with lower associated footprints. Others now allow the option of buying carbon offsets when making NFT purchases, although the environmental benefits of this have been questioned. In some instances, NFT artists have decided against selling some of their own work to limit carbon emission contributions.
Artist and buyer fees
Sales platforms charge artists and buyers fees for minting, listing, claiming and secondary sales. Analysis of NFT markets in March 2021, in the immediate aftermath of Beeple's "Everydays: the First 5000 Days" selling for US$69.3 million, found that most NFT artworks were selling for less than $200, with a third selling for less than $100. Those selling below $100 were paying network usage fees between 72.5 and 157.5 per cent of that amount, meaning that such artists were on average paying more money in fees than they were making in sales.
Plagiarism and fraud
There have been cases of artists having their work sold by others as an NFT, without permission. After the artist Qing Han died in 2020, her identity was assumed by a fraudster and a number of her works became available for purchase as NFTs. Similarly, a seller posing as Banksy succeeded in selling an NFT supposedly made by the artist for $336,000 in 2021; with the seller in this case refunding the money after the case drew media attention.
A process known as "sleepminting" can also allow a fraudster to mint an NFT in an artist's wallet and transfer it back to their own account without the artist becoming aware. This allowed a white hat hacker to mint a fraudulent NFT that had seemingly originated from the wallet of the artist Beeple.
The BBC reported a case of insider trading when an employee of the NFT marketplace OpenSea bought specific NFTs before they were launched, with the prior knowledge they would be promoted on the company's home page. NFT trading is an unregulated market that has no legal recourse for such abuses.
In their announcement of developing NFT support for the graphics editor Photoshop, Adobe proposed creating an InterPlanetary File System database as an alternative means of establishing authenticity for digital works.
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