This article may contain wording that promotes the subject through exaggeration of unnoteworthy facts. (May 2021)
A non-fungible token (NFT) is a unit of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, that certifies a digital asset to be unique and therefore not interchangeable. NFTs can be used to represent items such as photos, videos, audio, and other types of digital files. Access to any copy of the original file, however, is not restricted to the buyer of the NFT. While copies of these digital items are available for anyone to obtain, NFTs are tracked on blockchains to provide the owner with a proof of ownership that is separate from copyright.
In 2021, there has been increased interest in using NFTs. Blockchains like Ethereum, Flow, and Tezos have their own standards when it comes to supporting NFTs, but each works to ensure that the digital item represented is authentically one-of-a-kind. NFTs are now being used to commodify digital assets in art, music, sports, and other popular entertainment. Most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain; however, other blockchains can implement their own versions of NFTs. The NFT market value tripled in 2020, reaching more than $250 million.
A non-fungible token (NFT) is a unit of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, that certifies any digital file to be unique. NFTs function like cryptographic tokens, but unlike cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, are not mutually interchangeable, in other words, not fungible. NFTs are created when blockchains string records of cryptographic hash, a set of characters that verifies a set of data to be unique, 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. Also, 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.
NFTs of artworks are similar to autographed items. The unique identity and ownership of an NFT is verifiable via the blockchain ledger. NFTs have metadata that is processed through a cryptographic hash function.
Despite the purchase not resulting in actual ownership of said art, 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. 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. 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.
Figma CEO Dylan Field, sold a digital avatar entitled "CryptoPunk #7804" for US$7.5 million to an anonymous investor, as well as a second avatar "Ape, Fedora #6965" for US$1.5 million in February 2021.
A 3D-rendered model of a home named "Mars House", created by artist Krista Kim was sold as a piece of digital real estate on the NFT market for over US$500,000.
NFTs can represent collectibles like card collections but in a digital format. In February 2021, a LeBron James slam dunk NFT card on the NBA Top Shot platform sold for $208,000. In May 2021 NBA Top Shot reached 1 million users.
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 February 2021, Axie Infinity recorded a sale of $1.5 million for digital land titles in a single sale.
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 to fall nearly 85%. Similar to limited edition merchandise or a physical copy of an artist's work, NFTs allow more avenues for fans to connect with and support their favorite bands or artists.
NFTs were extremely influential to the music industry within 2021 where many artists across all genres explored the usage of NFTs in their streams of revenue. In February 2021 alone, NFTs reportedly generated around $25 million within the music industry leading to increased ventures in the medium by more artists. 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. The NFT went on to generate a reported $2 million in sales, in which more than quarter of the revenue was donated to charity benefiting live entertainment workers. Later the same month, American rapper Lil Pump partnered with the NFT platform Sweet, to release a special NFT collection.
Record producer Mike Dean united with artist Shepard Fairey to release their NFT collection "OBEY 4:22" on April 23, 2021. The release serves as the follow up to Dean's 2020 album "4:20". The NFT collection was only available during a 15-minute window in which all of the music of "4:22" was performed and improvised through a series of live streams through Twitch and Instagram live.
In early May 2021, the estate of rapper XXXTentacion announced that it would release five songs and previously never before seen footage from his 2017 tour as an NFT collection. The upcoming release will mark the songwriter as the first artist to have their music posthumously released as an NFT. The artist's estate has revealed that company YellowHeart will be helping distribute the collection, who also played a role in the Kings of Leon release.
The motion picture industry has been slower to react to the boom in NFTs, in part owing to the technical challenges of storing digital movies – which are typically very large in size – onto blockchain technology, which is designed for smaller file sizes.
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 Oscar-nominated documentary Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah became the first motion picture, documentary and Academy Award-nominated film to be minted and auctioned as an NFT, via the Rarible platform.
Several other tentative and experimental releases from filmmakers, studios and agencies have followed, with Legendary Entertainment announcing it would release an exclusive Godzilla vs. Kong NFT collection on the same day the film hit theatres; director Kevin Smith announcing in April 2021 that his forthcoming horror movie Killroy Was Here would be released as an NFT; and talent agencies such as UTA and Endeavor announcing NFT-related ventures.
Athletes are starting to take advantage of the NFT boom in various ways. 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 "N.B.A 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. Eighty-five percent of the proceeds from the auction are earmarked to go to the university. The university will continue to own the patents for these inventions, as the NFTs relate only to the university patent disclosure forms.
The NFT market has seen rapid growth recently with its value tripling to $250 million in 2020. In the first three months of 2021 alone, more than $200 million were spent on NFTs. The economic momentum NFTs have in the cryptomarket has exploded because of a trend towards digital collectibles. NFTs are also accelerating a larger trend of digital economic innovation as the public is increasingly favoring a crypto-economy.
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 it 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.
The first one-off NFT was created on May 3, 2014, by Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash, live at the Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum in New York City. This experiment represents the first time a non-fungible, tradable blockchain marker was explicitly, via on-chain metadata (enabled by Namecoin), linked to a unique work of art, 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.
In 2017, the Ethereum blockchain started to gain prominence over bitcoin based token platforms, due to Ethereum having a system for token creation and storage built right into its blockchain thus eliminating the need for third-party platforms like Counterparty, and was the company to coin 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 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.
In 2021 interest in NFT continued to spike, and a number of high-profile sales were made just in the first few months. 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 frenzy of NFTs was called an economic bubble by experts, who also compared it to the Dot-com bubble.
By mid-April 2021, the buying frenzy had substantially subsided, causing prices to fall significantly, buyers who had gotten in early were reported to have "done supremely well" by Bloomberg Businessweek.
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 have become increasingly popular in the early months of 2021 because of recent high-profile sales. Some notable NFT sales in 2021 like NBA Top Shot's video clip of LeBron James selling for $208,000 on February 22, 3LAU’s album bringing in $11.7 million in sales as of February 28, and digital artist Beeple's piece selling for $69.3 million on March 11, have made NFTs an especially current topic in popular culture. In March 2021 alone, NFT sales exceeded $220 million making up nearly half of all-time NFT sales ever at the time. This renewed interest in NFTs, particularly those in art, music, and sports, have made way into mainstream consciousness, especially amongst the younger generation. In a March 27, 2021 Saturday Night Live episode, cast members satirized this growing niche with a comedy skit on NFTs, which was later sold in the form of an NFT for $365,000 on April 6, 2021.
Many investors are willing to pay high rates to secure and promote NFTs and continue to do so because they anticipate NFTs to be the biggest and most profitable collectibles in the future. Venture capitalist David Pakman has claimed that the growing value of NFTs is redefining the major entertainment industry as of early 2021. 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. A number of approaches have been devised to remedy this situation, such as using a decentralized storage system like IPFS to store the file so that the buyer can host the file themselves.
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 public networks, 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.