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NFT copyright is still a total mess, says report

NFT copyright is still a total mess, says report

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Misleading, confusing, or total nonsense

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An illustration of a Bored Ape at the center of a vortex pulling in Meebits and CryptoPunks.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Non-fungible tokens or NFTs are sold on the promise of “ownership,” but a new review suggests many creators and buyers still have no idea what that means. A review from blockchain investment company Galaxy Digital finds that only one of the 25 most valuable NFT projects even tries to give buyers direct intellectual property rights to the underlying art, and many offer confusing or nebulous licenses despite recent efforts to clean up the space.

The Galaxy report analyzes the terms of major NFT projects, including the Yuga Labs project Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), Gary Vaynerchuk’s VeeFriends, and World of Women as well as the “metaverse” social platforms Decentraland and Sandbox. It concludes that “the vast majority of NFTs convey zero intellectual property ownership of their underlying content,” and many of their operators (including Yuga Labs) “appear to have misled NFT purchasers” about the extent of their rights. Some projects have tried to prevent confusion by adopting the widely known Creative Commons license, but in the process, some have effectively untethered IP rights from the NFT — making it “impossible” for NFT holders to defend exclusive rights to the art.

“It’s hard to imagine that Seth Green and his production studio didn’t negotiate a separate deal”

This echoes the conclusions of a review by Cornell University and the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies and Contracts, adapted by The Verge earlier this year. And both reviews call out BAYC, one of the largest and most influential NFT series, as being particularly incoherent. The BAYC terms promise that buyers “own” the underlying art for their token “completely,” but they also grant a license that directly contradicts this claim. (In short, if you actually owned the art, you wouldn’t need a license to use it.) Galaxy is highly skeptical of the claim that major artists like Seth Green are actually relying on NFT terms of service. “It’s hard to imagine that Seth Green and his production studio didn’t negotiate a separate deal with Yuga,” it quite reasonably concludes.

That said, Yuga Labs recently introduced a greatly overhauled terms of service for its CryptoPunks and Meebits series, laying out what a more professionalized version of NFT licensing might look like. Galaxy also calls out the “noble effort” World of Women (WoW), the only project in its survey that tries to formally transfer copyright ownership of art with its NFTs. But it says WoW still doesn’t clarify how selling the NFT transfers the rights to any derivative works based on that copyright.

When the IP rights stay with the NFT’s original creators, they can unilaterally change the terms in ways some NFT buyers might hate. This recently happened with the Moonbirds project, which announced a switch to the CC0 (or “no copyright reserved”) Creative Commons license after telling buyers for months that they “owned” their Moonbirds art. CC0 effectively means anybody, not just the NFT holder, can use the art — something that allegedly sunk at least one Moonbirds owner’s pending licensing deal with a brand.

Galaxy’s report focuses on the goal of improving NFT licenses. This might be helpful for NFT aficionados who want to license their purchases or make fan art of them. But the current state of play doesn’t indicate they’re a great way to manage intellectual property rights — at least not without a lot more work.