There goes NFT-y

A daring young entrepreneur (a millennial, I’m sure) has come up with a way to market original versions of digital art. As a graphic designer, I was intrigued by this. A lot of the art I make is digitally created on a computer. It has always bothered me there is no “original” of my art in existence except the PDF or JPEG file. Since anyone can print or post copies of art on the web, there is essentially no one true master file. At least, until now.

Everything has changed with the rise of something called an NFT (non-fungible token). Worst name ever. A few weeks of headlines in technology news hailed NFTs as being the next big thing. This rising new investment opportunity offers unique proof of ownership for something you can’t hold in your hand — a piece of digital art, a digital trading card, or even a video clip. You can’t hold an NFT in your hand because it’s the electronic master file of your creation. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece of internet code linking your art to something called the “blockchain” where it is stored and protected on a shared public exchange. So if you own the code, you are the sole owner of the digital creation. Yes, I’m already lost, too. 

Things get tricky because a person can copy a digital file as many times as they want, including art from NFTs. Art is copied and shared (and stolen) on the internet all the time. But NFTs are designed to give you something that can’t be copied: ownership of the artwork. Anyone can buy a print of the Mona Lisa. But there is only one owner of the original painting.

NFTs give artists a way to sell their digitally created artwork and command a higher price because they can now sell the original file. NFTs have an enabled feature that pays artists a percentage every time an NFT is sold or changes hands. If an artist’s work gets super popular and balloons in value, the artist can see some of that financial benefit, something that has been lost due to the easy duplication of material posted on the internet. Computer generated art can now have a link or code to make the piece an “original” if you were the person who bought the NFT link.

Still something seemed missing. If you were an art collector looking to invest money, is purchasing something basically intangible the best idea? As a graphic designer trying to make a living selling art, it sounded like a way to up the value of creative properties. However, when I dug a little deeper into the process of creating pieces of art as NFTs, things got wonky really fast. 

If I create a piece of art on my computer and I want to turn it into an NFT so I can sell the original art (or at least an ownership link to the original digital art), it’s going to cost me money. A high registration fee has to be paid to the company that hosts the link for the artwork to be recognized as an official NFT. Once the fee is paid, the link is uploaded into something called a “blockchain” hosted by the NFT company. After that, I’m free to find an investor willing to shell out a huge wad of cash so they can own the original of my art (or at least a link to the original file).

The catch is, any funds transferring hands must be done using “cryptocurrency”. I’ve heard of Bitcoin but I don’t have any desire to start using artificial money. NFTs can only be bought and sold with something called Ethereum. If I want to register my art as an NFT, I have to first buy shares in the Ethereum currency to use it to pay the registration fee. Somebody is making lots of real money as all this electronic currency changes hands – and it’s not me.

My research on new currencies and virtual investing has lead to one thing – a massive migraine. The only winners seem to be cryptocurrency brokers or artists who found gullible investors willing to fork over a ton of money to basically own nothing. Is digital currency real? Does digital art have any value? After scouring the web for information I’m still not sure what an NFT is. Is the entire process a pyramid scheme created by techno-nerds using slight of hand tricks to sell people virtually nothing? 

There are some success stories. Ex-Patriot Rob Gronkowski got in on the ground floor by creating an exclusive NFT football trading card collection. It was a major success. According to Rosenfield Media Group, all but one of the 349 available cards have sold out. The collection has taken in more than $1.2 million dollars. All for something that only exists as a link on the internet.

Christie’s Auction House just finished an auction for its first ever piece of digital artwork. The JPEG image was created by graphic artist Mike Winkelmann, better known by his Instagram handle “Beeple”. The digital file sold for $69 million dollars (not a typo). Andy Warhol must be spinning in his grave.

This week I planned on writing a concise clarification of the NFT investment craze. Each link I clicked looking for answers mades me feel like Alice in Wonderland falling down a virtual rabbit hole. I plunged headfirst into an abyss of confusion where the more I learned about NFTs, the more complicated things became. Every digital window on the internet leads to another and another, with something more confusing around each corner. Like Alice, I’m starting to question what it all means.

Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.”

You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.” 

Is it me or is the Mad Hatter starting to make sense?

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