This article may contain wording that promotes the subject through exaggeration of unnoteworthy facts. (May 2021)
A non-fungible token (NFT) is a unique and non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a digital ledger (blockchain). NFTs can be used to represent easily-reproducible items such as photos, videos, audio, and other types of digital files as unique items (analogous to a certificate of authenticity), and use blockchain technology to establish a verified and public proof of ownership. Copies of the original file are not restricted to the owner of the NFT, and can be copied and shared like any file. The lack of interchangeability (fungibility) distinguishes NFTs from blockchain cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin.
The first NFT project was launched in 2015 on the Ethereum blockchain, and interest grew with the rise of interest in crypto currencies. According to NonFungible.com, sales exceeded $2 billion in the first quarter of 2021, more than 20 times the volume of the previous quarter. NFTs have drawn criticism with respect to the energy cost and carbon footprint associated with validating blockchain transactions.
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. NFTs (and the associated license to use, copy or display the underlying asset) can be traded and sold on digital markets.
NFTs function like cryptographic tokens, but, unlike cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, NFTs are not mutually interchangeable, hence not fungible. While all bitcoins are equal, each NFT may represent a different underlying asset and thus 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 like where the art is stored can die.
The unique identity and ownership of an NFT is verifiable via the blockchain ledger. Ownership of the 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 was an early use case for NFTs, because of the ability of blockchain technology to assure the unique signature and ownership of NFTs. The digital artwork entitled "Everydays – The First 5000 Days", by artist Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, sold for US$69.3 million in 2021. The purchase resulted in the third-highest auction price achieved for a living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney, respectively.
Another Beeple piece entitled "Crossroad", consisting of a 10-second video showing animated pedestrians walking past a figure of Donald J. Trump, sold for US$6.6 million at Nifty Gateway, an online cryptocurrency marketplace for digital art.
Erwin Wurm released a NFT as one of the first already internationally renowned artist in August 2021. The work "Breathe In, Breathe Out" was released by Berlin-based König gallery's website MISA 20 years after Wurm's first Fat Car. The sequence shows a loop of a seemingly breathing Porsche 911.
Curio Cards, a digital set of 30 unique cards considered the first NFT art collectibles on the Ethereum blockchain, sold for $1.2 million at Christie's Post-War to Present auction. The lot included the card "17b," a rare digital "misprint" (a series of which were made by mistake).
NFTs can represent digital collectibles like physical card collections, however in a completely digital format. In February 2021, a LeBron James slam dunk NFT card on the NBA Top Shot platform sold for $208,000.
Tickets, for any type of event, have been suggested as a use case for NFTs. One such use case is the possibility for artists to receive royalties on resales. Another one would be a more intimate relationship between fans and artists.
NFTs can also be used to represent in-game assets, such as digital plots of land, which are controlled by the user instead of the game developer. NFTs allow assets to be traded on third-party marketplaces without permission from the game developer.
In October 2021, one of the two largest gaming platforms Steam banned applications that make use of blockchain technology or use NFTs to exchange value or game artifacts while Epic Games said they would allow the use of NFT technology, but only as curated by Epic, for age-appropriate and legal compliance with laws.
Community NFTs such as "Bored Ape Yacht Club" and "Pudgy Penguins" entitles token holders to benefits, including membership entry to a private Discord server by validating the NFT exists in the wallet against entry.
Described as the Metaverse, virtual worlds such as Decentraland, Sandbox, Star Atlas, CryptoVoxels, and Somnium Space allow users to create galleries to show off NFT art, clothes, real estate and attend live events with friends online. They use NFTs to auction off limited objects such as virtual land. The open standards means users can seamlessly transact and bring external NFT objects onto their purchased land. In June 2021, a plot of virtual land sized 16 acres on Decentraland was sold for $913,228.20.
Blockchain and the technology enabling the network have given the opportunity for musicians to tokenize and publish their work as non-fungible tokens. This has extended the list of options for musicians and artists alike to monetize and profit from their music as well as other content surrounding the themes of the music and the artists' public image. Additionally, NFTs have provided the opportunity for artists and touring musicians to recuperate lost income due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in music industry revenues falling nearly 85%.
NFTs were utilized by artists to increase revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021, NFTs reportedly generated around $25 million within the music industry (in an industry with annual revenue of over $20 billion or .125%). 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, rock band Kings of Leon became the first to announce the release of a new album, When You See Yourself, in the form of an NFT which generated a reported $2 million in sales. Other musicians that have used NFTs include American rapper Lil Pump, 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.io 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 via the Rarible platform.
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 upcoming 2021 film Zero Contact, directed by Rick Dugdale and starring Anthony Hopkins, will also be released as an NFT.
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.
NFTs have also been used in sports, in September 2019, NBA player Spencer Dinwiddie tokenized his contract so that others can invest into it. In addition, Dapper Labs, a blockchain technology-based company, has collaborated with the NBA to create "NBA Top Shot", a marketplace for digital highlight clips.
In 2019, Nike acquired a patent that allows for blockchain technology to attach cryptographically secured digital assets in the form of NFTs to physical products, such as a pair of sneakers, under the name "CryptoKicks".
Some porn stars have also tokenized their pornographic work, allowing for the sale of unique content for their customers, though hostility from NFT marketplaces towards pornographic material has presented significant drawbacks for creators.
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 NFTs were sold on June 8, 2021, for 22 ETH (ca. $55,000).
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 29th, 2021. In the video, Tomas destroys a state-sponsored Lithuanian plaque locate on the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences honoring Nazi war criminal Jonas Noreika with a sledgehammer.
In March, 2021, Injective Protocol (through the name BurntBanksy) destroyed a $95,000 original screen print entitled "Morons" from the famous English graffiti artist Banksy as an act of performance art which they minted and sold as a video NFT. According to the performance artist, the act was a way to transfer a physical work of art to the NFT space.
Ownership of an NFT does not inherently grant copyright 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.
Standards in blockchains
Specific token standards have been created to support various blockchain use-cases. These include the Ethereum ERC-721 standard of CryptoKitties, and the more recent ERC-1155 standard. The FLOW and Bitcoin Cash blockchains support NFTs.
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 importing them from the OpenZeppelin library. 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 a superset of 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.
The FLOW blockchain which uses proof of stake consensus model supports NFTs, for example NBA Top Shot is run on the FLOW blockchain. Cryptokitties plans to switch from Ethereum to FLOW in the future.
Early history (2012–2017)
The first one-off NFT avant la lettre was minted on May 2, 2014, by Kevin McCoy, in preparation to the Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum in New York City. The experiment of creating a "monetized graphics" live at the conference on May 3 represented the second time a non-fungible, tradable blockchain marker was explicitly, via on-chain metadata (enabled by Namecoin), linked to a unique work of art, and the first time ever it was sold, standing in stark contrast to the multi-unit, fungible, metadata-less "colored coins" of other blockchains and Counterparty.
In October 2015, the first fully-fledged NFT project, Etheria, was launched and demonstrated live at DEVCON 1, Ethereum's first developer conference, in London, UK, just three months after the launch of the Ethereum blockchain itself. Most of Etheria's 457 purchasable and tradable hexagonal tiles went unsold for more than 5 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 cents at the time of launch), were sold for a total of $1.4 million.
Public awareness (2017–2021)
In 2017 the Ethereum blockchain began gaining prominence over bitcoin based token platforms, largely due to having token creation and storage built into its blockchain; this eliminated the need for third-party platforms such as Counterparty. Furthermore, the company[clarification needed] coined the term "non-fungible token". Also in 2017, the American studio Larva Labs released CryptoPunks, a project to trade unique cartoon characters, on the Ethereum blockchain. In late 2017, another project called CryptoKitties where players adopt and trade virtual cats was released and quickly went viral, raising a $12.5 million investment and some kitties were selling for over $100,000.
In 2018, Decentraland, a blockchain-based virtual world which first sold its tokens in August 2017, raised $26 million in an initial coin offering, and had a $20 million internal economy as of September 2018. Following CryptoKitties' success, another similar NFT-based online game Axie Infinity was launched in March 2018, which then proceeded to become the most expensive NFT collection in May 2021.
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.
NFT buying surge (2021–present)
In 2021, interest in NFTs increased. Blockchains such as Ethereum, Flow, and Tezos established specific standards to ensure that the digital item represented are authentically one-of-a-kind. NFTs are now being used to commodify digital assets in art, music, sports, and other popular entertainment, with most NFTs part of the Ethereum blockchain, while other blockchains can implement their own versions of NFTs. A number of high-profile sales were made just in the first few months of the year. In February 2021, the musician Grimes sold around $6 million worth of tokens representing digital art on Nifty Gateway. Later that month, an NFT representing the meme animation Nyan Cat was sold in an Internet marketplace for just under $600,000. 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 5, 2021, the band Kings of Leon became the first to sell a newly released album, When You See Yourself, in the form of an NFT, generating a reported $2 million in sales. On March 11, 2021, American digital artist Beeple's work Everydays: The First 5000 Days became the first NFT artwork to be listed at prominent auction house Christie's and sold for $69.3 million. On March 22, 2021, Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, sold an NFT representing his first tweet for over $2.5 million.
The speculative market for NFTs has led more investors to trade at greater volumes and rates. The buying surge of NFTs was called an economic bubble by experts, who also compared it to the Dot-com bubble. By mid-April 2021, demand appeared to have substantially subsided, causing prices to fall significantly; early buyers were reported to have "done supremely well" by Bloomberg Businessweek. An NFT of the source code of the World Wide Web, credited to internet inventor computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, was auctioned in June 2021 by Sotheby’s in London, and was sold for US$5.4 million.
In 2017, NFTs circulated by CryptoKitties, a project developed by Dapper Labs to sell ownership of unique cat avatars, jumped so much in popularity that a surge in demand took up significant transaction space on the Ethereum blockchain and slowed the entire Ethereum network in December of that year.
NFTs became increasingly popular in the early months of 2021 because of numerous high-profile sales, including an NBA Top Shot video clip of LeBron James for $208,000, a 3LAU album for $11.7 million, and a piece by digital artist Beeple for $69.3 million. NFT sales exceeded $220 million in March 2021 alone, making up nearly half of all-time NFT sales up to that point. This renewed interest in NFTs, particularly those in art, music, and sports, made way into public consciousness, especially amongst the younger generation. A comedy skit on the March 27, 2021 episode of Saturday Night Live satirized the popularity of NFTs; the skit was sold as an NFT itself for $365,000 on April 6, 2021.
In 2021, many investors have been willing to pay high rates to secure and promote NFTs, anticipating them to be the biggest and most profitable collectibles in the future. In April 2021, venture capitalist David Pakman claimed that the growing value of NFTs was redefining the major entertainment industry. Investors like Mark Cuban have proposed new ways of implementing NFT technology to monetize sports tickets and merchandise sales.
NFTs involving digital art generally do not store the 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.
NFT purchases and sales are enmeshed in a controversy regarding the high energy use, 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.
Plagiarism and fraud
There have been examples of "artists having their work copied without permission" and sold as an NFT. 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.
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