At the weekend I visited the Moco Museum with my wife in Amsterdam. It’s the first time I’ve seen an NFT art exhibition. It wasn’t… bad? But, as someone commented when I said as much on social media, the ownership model is kind of irrelevant. It’s the digital art that matters.
(the animation below is from a video I took of an appropriate Beeple artwork)
What I think we’re all starting to realise is that for everything to be on the blockchain, we would need to fundamentally change the nature of human interaction. And that change would be toward dystopia.
In this article, James Grimmelmann, who is a professor at Cornell Law School and Cornell Tech (where he directs the Cornell Tech Research Lab in Applied Law and Technology) explains just this.
Loosely speaking, there are three kinds of property you could use an NFT to try to control ownership of: physical things like houses, cars, or tungsten cubes; information like digital artworks; and intangible rights like corporate shares.
By default, buying an NFT “of” one of these three things doesn’t give you possession of them. Getting an NFT representing a tungsten cube doesn’t magically move the cube to your house. It’s still somewhere else in the world. If you want NFTs to actually control ownership of anything besides themselves, you need the legal system to back them up and say that whoever holds the NFT actually owns the thing.
Right now, the legal system doesn’t work that way. Transfer of an NFT doesn’t give you any legal rights in the thing. That’s not how IP and property work. Lawyers who know IP and property law are in pretty strong agreement on this.
It’s possible to imagine systems that would tie legal ownership to possession of an NFT. But they’re (1) not what most current NFTs do, (2) technically ambitious to the point of absurdity, and (3) profoundly dystopian. To see why, suppose we had a system that made the NFT on a blockchain legally authoritative for ownership of a copyright, or of an original object, etc. There would still be the enforcement problem of getting everyone to respect the owner’s rights.
Grimmelmann clarifies in a footnote that just because NFTs might work for art, doesn’t mean they’re appropriate for… well, anything else:
A lot of the current hype around NFTs consists of the belief that the rest of the world will follow the same rules as NFT art. But of course part of the point of art is that it doesn’t follow the same rules as the rest of the world.