NFTs and Copyright

The rise in popularity of nonfungible tokens (NFTs) has generated considerable controversy and confusion about whether and how copyright law applies to them. In this article, Cokato, Minnesota attorney Thomas James discusses the interplay between NFTs and U.S. copyright law.

by Minnesota attorney Thomas James

The rise in popularity of nonfungible tokens (NFTs) has generated considerable controversy and confusion about whether and how copyright law applies to them. In this article, Cokato, Minnesota attorney Thomas James explains what they are and discusses the interplay between NFTs and U.S. copyright law.

Minnesota attorney Thomas James illustrates discussion of NFTs with a digitized copy of Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

Just for fun, call up an attorney and say, “Hey, I‘ve got a quick question for you. Can I make, sell and buy NFTs without getting into copyright trouble?” Depending on the attorney’s age, area of practice, and musical tastes, the answers you get may be anything from “What makes you think that selling shares of the Nichiyu Forklift Thailand company could raise copyright issues?” to “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind” – and many variants in between.

(More probably, someone other than the attorney would answer the phone and ask, “Would you like to set up an appointment?” That, however, would not help to make the point.)

Incidentally, don’t really make a telephone call like this “just for fun.” I was only joking I wouldn’t want you to incur unnecessary legal fees or be accused of making an unwanted or disturbing telephone call.

The point is that many members of the legal profession are scrambling just as much as everybody else is to understand NFTs and how copyright laws apply to them. The aim of this article is to reduce some of the confusion by shedding some light on what NFTs are and how copyright laws may apply to them.

What are NFTs?

NFT stands for “non-fungible token.”

Great. Now what the heck is that? Well, let’s break it down.

Fungible vs. Non-fungible

An item is said to be “fungible” if it is interchangeable with similar items. For example, if a retailer orders 100 pounds of red potatoes from a wholesaler, the contract is most likely one for the purchase of fungible goods. The retailer most likely has not specifically identified any particular potato that must be included in the batch, so long as they’re all of merchantable quality. By contrast, if an art collector enters into a contract to purchase an original painting by Peter Doig, it is almost certainly going to be a contract for a non-fungible product (the painting.) The buyer of a non-fungible item wants a specifically identified item.

Currency is a good illustration of the difference. When you cash a check at a bank, you don’t really care which particular bills and coins you are given in exchange for the check, so long as the amount you are given is equal to the amount specified on the check. The currency in this situation is fungible. By contrast, if you present a check for $4 million dollars to a rare coin vendor to purchase a 1913 Liberty V nickel, you would not consider it acceptable for the vendor to give you a standard-issue 2019 nickel in its place. The rare coin in this example is not fungible, i.e., it is non-fungible.

Tokens

A token is something that represents or stands for something else. New York City old-timers may recall subway tokens – small, coin-shaped objects representing the right of access to a subway train. Casino chips are tokens representing specified amounts of money.

A digital token is a programmable digital unit that is recorded on a digital ledger using blockchain technology. There are a lot of different kinds of digital tokens. They can represent physical goods or digital goods.

Bitcoins are examples of fungible digital tokens. Digital NFTs, on the other hand, most commonly represent art, a photograph, music, a video, a meme, or a digitized scan of some other kind. Cryptopunks, pixelated images of characters each one of which is unique and different from others, are some of the earliest NFTs, but many other examples abound.

Ethereum has developed standards for digital tokens. The ERC-721 standard governs digital NFTs. Under this standard, every NFT must have a tokenID. The tokenID is generated when the token is created. Every NFT also must have a contract address. This is a blockchain address that can be viewed using a blockchain scanner. The combination of tokenID and contract address is unique for each NFT.

Blockchains

Both fungible and nonfungible tokens are built and reside on blockchains. A blockchain is simply a database that stores information in digital format. Think of them as digital ledgers. They are called “block” chains because information is stored in groups (“blocks”). When a block reaches its storage capacity, it is closed and linked to the previously filled block. A new block will be formed for any new data that is added later. As this process repeats, a chain of records is created. Hence the “chain” in blockchain. Each block is time-stamped.

Blockchains are simply record-keeping mechanisms. They work well for many, but not all, kinds of digital files. They play a significant role in cryptocurrency systems, as they maintain a secure, decentralized record of transactions. They are not as efficient, however, for large digital files like artwork, videos, sound recordings, and so on. In these cases, a nonfungible token, not the actual file, can be made a part of the chain. This is why, in addition to a tokenID and contract address, an NFT will frequently contain the creator’s wallet address and a link to the work the token represents.

One of the most important things to remember about NFTs, for purposes of copyright law, is that although they might contain a creative work within them, more typically they link to a work in some way. They are pieces of code containing a link; they are not typically the works themselves.  

Transfers of NFTs vs. transfers of copyrights

NFTs representing artwork sometimes sell for millions of dollars. Perhaps this explains the popular misconception that the copyright in the work the NFT represents gets transferred along with the NFT. No, buying an NFT representing a work of art does not, by itself, give the buyer the rights of a copyright owner. You might think that you must be getting something more than a string of code when you buy an NFT, but no. In the United States anyway, an assignment of copyright must be express and made in a writing signed by the copyright owner (or the copyright owner’s authorized agent.)

Of course, if a written contract does expressly provide for the assignment of the copyright, then a transfer of a copyright may co-occur with the transfer of an NFT. In the absence of such a contractual provision, however, buying an NFT does not transfer the copyright in the artwork it represents. Instead, it operates in a way similar to the way buying a copy of a copyrighted book or a print of copyrighted artwork does.

The question whether the transfer of an NFT gives the transferee a copyright license is a little more complicated.

In the United States, an exclusive copyright license, like an outright transfer, must be in writing. A non-exclusive license, on the other hand, may be either express or implied. In addition, it is possible to code any type of agreement into a smart contract (an agreement that is written in code and stored on a blockchain.) If the existence of a valid copyright license can be proven, then the nature and extent of the NFT transferee’s rights may be governed by its terms.

A U.S. federal court had occasion to address the subject of implied copyright licenses in the case of Pelaez v. McGraw Hill, 399 F. Supp. 3d 120 (S.D.N.Y. 2019). There, the court ruled that the test for an implied license is whether the parties’ conduct, taken as a whole, demonstrates an intent to grant a license. The court pointed out that an implied license cannot be based on the unilateral expectations of one person. A party’s subjective belief that he or she has been granted a license is not enough. The totality of facts and circumstances must be such that a court could reasonably infer that both parties intended a license.

Copyright ownership arises at the time an original, creative, expressive work is fixed in a tangible medium. Registration is not required. Despite this feature of copyright law, some countries make registration of the copyright a prerequisite to enforcing it in court. The United States is such a country.

Some people believe that because blockchain operates as an unalterable record of ownership, it serves as a substitute for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is not the case.

The U.S. Copyright Act requires the copyright in a domestic work to be registered with the Copyright Office before an infringement claim may be filed in court. 17 U.S.C. § 411. It does not make an exception for cases in which ownership is sought to be proven by a “poor man’s copyright” (i.e., submitting into evidence the postmark on an envelope in which you have mailed a copy of the work to yourself), much less for a digital NFT.

Of course, a registration certificate only creates a presumption of copyright ownership. The presumption is rebuttable. Could evidence such as the date on which an NFT representing the work was created and written into the blockchain be used to rebut that presumption? Possibly. Then again, how probative is that evidence? Anyone can make a false ownership claim and write it into the blockchain, just as anyone can mail an infringing copy of a work to themselves.

Unless Congress amends the Copyright Act to make blockchain a substitute for registration with the Copyright Office, it would be foolhardy to rely on blockchain as a registration alternative.

Infringement

Is minting an NFT associated with a copyrighted work, without permission, infringement? The answer to this question is not as simple as you might think.

The exclusive rights of a copyright owner include reproduction, distribution, public display, public performance, and the making of derivative works. An NFT containing only a tokenID, contract address and a link to a work is merely a string of code associated with a work; it is not the work itself. If an NFT only contains a link to the work, not the work itself, then it is difficult to see how minting an NFT would violate any of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner.

Of course, if the NFT itself contains copyright-protected elements of the work (and this would have to be something more than the title, artist name and a link), then it might be a reproduction or a derivative of the work. In this situation, creating an NFT without the copyright owner’s permission could constitute infringement, since the copyright owner has the exclusive right to make copies and derivatives of the work.

If the link points to a copy or derivative work that the link creator created in violation of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights to make copies and derivative works, then the link creator could incur two kinds of infringement liability. Even if minting an NFT does not itself infringe a copyright, including in it a link to an infringing copy of a copyright-protected work could result in contributory liability for infringement if that person knows or should know that it will facilitate or encourage unauthorized copying (or other unauthorized use) of a copyrighted work. And of course, there would be direct liability for making the copy or the derivative work without the copyright owner’s permission.

The first sale doctrine

Under U.S. copyright law, the purchaser of a lawfully acquired copy of a copyrighted work may resell that copy without first getting the copyright owner’s permission, unless a contract governing the acquisition of the copy provides otherwise. This is why purchasing a paperback copy of The Andromeda Strain on Amazon.com and later reselling it at a garage sale will not subject you to liability for infringing the copyright owner’s exclusive right to distribute copies of the work.

Does the first sale doctrine also apply to NFTs?

The first sale doctrine generally does not apply to resales of digital goods. This is because a sale of a digital file normally will require making a copy of the file. That would violate the copyright owner’s exclusive right to reproduce his or her work. See, e.g., Capitol Records LLC v. ReDigi Inc. (2d Cir. 2018) (refusing to apply the first sale doctrine to the resale of an MP3 file because the resale would require making an unauthorized reproduction of the original MP3 file).

NFTs, however, arguably are distinguishable from MP3 files. A purchaser of an NFT does not buy the digital file containing the copyright-protected work. An NFT buyer simply purchases a token. Reselling a token does not involve reproducing the work itself. cf. Disney Enterprises Inc. v. Redbox Automated Retail LLC (C.D. Cal. Feb. 20, 2018 (first sale doctrine inapplicable to digital download codes because they are options to create a physical copy, not actual sales of copies).

If the transferee of an NFT uses it to access the copyrighted work, and in the course of doing so, the work is reproduced or distributed, then it would seem that the transferee could, at that point, be liable for copyright infringement. There would also appear to be a potential risk of liability for contributory infringement on the part of the NFT seller, at least in some cases.

Of course, this should not be a problem if the copyright owner has authorized resales by NFT buyers.

Contact Minnesota attorney Thomas James

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Author: Thomas James

Formally known as Thomas B. James or Thomas James, Tom James is an attorney at the Law Office of Tom James in Cokato, Minnesota. Copyright, trademark, business law, nonprofit organization, appeals and appellate practice. Admitted to practice in Minnesota, the Federal and 8th Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. Also a continuing education instructor.

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