The recent attention for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) got me thinking about the last post I made (a master craftsman in printing making physical objects). In turn, that made me wonder about a lot more complexities around ownership, rights and what the actual product is in photography. The hype surrounding NFTs might make one believe it’s a solution to all kind of issues. But does it?
First up: I’m no legal expert. None of what follows is in any way meant to be a discourse on legal rights and obligations. If you need legal advice, consult a legal expert in your country of residence. That is not me.
Second: I’m no expert at blockchain technologies and related uses. But I’m pretty proficient in these kind of things, and I do understand the concepts behind it. Enough IT experience for that.
What follows is just a personal opinion, nothing else. Good, with that out of the way….
Why NFTs seem to make sense
Non-fungible tokens are seen as a solid way to register and trade ownership of digital assets. The most headline grabbing NFT so far has been the auction of the very first tweet ever. So, the digital asset you buy may not have any physical presence.
I don’t think it’s a wild guess to say that the vast majority of photos made and published today are fully digital assets. Printing photos is a bit a niche after all. Photos being shared via websites (like this one, or specific sharing sites like 500px or Flickr), social media (Instagram, Facebook and the likes) or send via email or file transfer services: the “life cycle” of a photo today is a digital affair.
So NFT would seem a logical solution to sell (and buy) photos today. If you feel a “but,…” coming now, yes, you’re right. When you buy something, normally you want to know what exactly you buy. And that’s where things easily can get muddy.
Even long before NFTs came up, this question was difficult when it comes to photos. When you pay for a photo that you didn’t make yourself, what you actually get varies.
Consider a wedding photographer. The typical package is the service of making the photos, creating an album (yay, a physical thing!) and probably sharing the series of photos in a digital form. What you do not get, typically, is the raw files (or negatives), the copyrights and most likely you will not get all files. Any decent photographer will make a selection, post-process and share only those.
Consider stock photography. The typical package is the right to use a certain image. Sometimes, for a lot more money, you can buy the exclusive use of a certain image. What you do not get: raw file, any print of the image (if it exists), or copyrights.
Consider buying a photo in an art gallery. You buy a print, which possibly is certified, numbered (to show it is one of a limited amount of prints). Very likely it’s not the only print, and for sure there are no usage rights included, let alone copyrights or the ability to reproduce the image.
These are some normal scenarios. None of them really involves ownership that is exclusive and requires proof of ownership. In normal cases, the photographer will retain the copyright and the original materials (be it a raw file, be it a negative) that technically allows them to produce more of the same.
So, which problem do these NFTs actually solve? Well, it can help define the original artwork, hence help distinguish between original and copies. Beyond that…. uhm….uhm…. Nothing changed with before we had NFTs: read the contract to understand what you actually really bought. It doesn’t solve the countless problems photographers encounter with copyright infringments either.
Market demand makes it all OK
If you read up on NFTs, one thing that tends to come up is that it’s all down to market demand: it represents what people are willing to pay for something, and provides a mechanism to enable just that. That is a fair point.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is always clear what is and what is not being sold. Market demand doesn’t mean the product is sound. Especially the hype that surrounds it today easily obfuscates what the actual product is.
Like in above examples, it all comes down to what the contract actually describes – that is what you buy. That is no different from ‘the old ways’. The blockchain token represents that whoever has that token, is entitled to what is described in the contract – so the one benefit would be the contract becomes product. But hopefully the above examples make a bit clear that ‘ownership’ is something that needs careful description, and that owning a digital photo as NFT isn’t as clear-cut as one might believe.
The old ways, where a contract between photographer or art gallery and buyer defined what was being traded, work reasonably well. Covered by consumer laws in most countries, and regulated and understood by courts. That legal framework is still mostly missing for NFTs.
Buy a print – a real physical print. Frame it, and put it on the wall. Look at it. Enjoy the image.
Old-fashioned? Yes, definitely. Sometimes old-fashioned stuff just works. A knife and fork are old-fashioned things, and we still use those. The wheel isn’t exactly novelty, and it’s still key to mobility. Just because something is new, doesn’t mean it is better or even good.
Harking back to the start of the post: a photographer like Ansel Adams (and many others who withstood the test of time) intended their photos to be seen as prints. That was the final product as they saw it fit.
NFTs won’t go away, and with some better regulation they may prove useful. I’m not against the technology as such, and as a way to register contracts (of any kind!) it sure has potential. But it’s about contracts. And buying art in the shape of a contract just feels off. Art should be enjoyed and presented in the way the artist envision. NFTs do nothing to promote that.
The way it is at the time of writing, it seems a hype that sucks people in just because it’s new, without actually improving on the old ways. Time will tell, sure. But never discount old technologies, just because there is some new way of doing things.
Prints, please choose prints if you want to spend money on photos.