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CC0 and NFTs: Understanding Ownership

BY Eric James Beyer

August 05, 2022

Intellectual property and copyrights are complex, and have long and spiraling histories. Copyright laws have evolved tremendously, and have seen a broad spectrum of applications across many legal jurisdictions since the 18th century. Likewise, the ways companies choose to enforce perceived violations of their IP have also evolved.

Take Games Workshop, the board game company behind the wildly successful Warhammer 40,000 IP. It has aggressively clamped down on fan-made content across the internet, seeding discontent in the fanbase. In 2019, Disney decided to become the villain of its own real-life movie when the corporate juggernaut refused a grieving father’s request to engrave an image of Spiderman on his deceased son’s gravestone.

But getting out from under the boot of traditional, hierarchical structures to empower grassroots communities is a cornerstone of Web3’s power-to-the-people design. So, when NFTs started changing hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars, nobody was thrilled to see the return of debates surrounding the IP rights of projects and collections, as they did with CryptoPunks, for example.

Before its acquisition by Yuga Labs, CryptoPunks allowed collectors to use its NFT as a profile pic, but that was about it. On the other hand, Bored Apes allowed buyers to monetize specific Apes, so long as they didn’t try to monetize the BAYC logo itself. Some interesting endeavors resulted from this, like Bored Wine Co., where you could send your Ape in to be transformed into a unique label on a vintage wine.

As people in the NFT ecosystem sought a way to avoid messy copyright complications and legally empower their collectors, some projects began using a CC0 copyright license, a legal tool that some see as a solution to these problems.

Suppose you’ve wondered why so many people are excited about the idea of NFTs and what they mean for the empowerment of the Web3 community. In that case, CC0 copyrights are one of the actual mechanisms driving that forward. 

What is a CC0 license?  

CC0, also known as the Creative Commons, means “no rights reserved” on intellectual property. It’s a form of copyright that allows creators to waive legal interest in their work and move it into the public domain as far as possible. In the case of NFTs, this is done so collectors can build upon or rework the art in their NFT for any purpose — whether that means duplicating it, branding it, or marketing it. Projects with this license mean that you aren’t even limited to your own NFT — you could use any NFT in the collection, even for the logo of a new company, if you wanted.

This might seem counterintuitive at the outset. If IPs are so profitable, releasing these rights would be financial suicide, right? Not quite.

Why use CC0? 

There are several benefits to using a CC0 license, the most basic of which is that it’s more likely to increase awareness of your NFT project’s brand.

NFTs that are out in the world and uninhibited by copyright are free to proliferate and spread awareness of your project, significantly appreciating that project’s value. Using a CC0 license also saves you a logistical and legal headache in dealing with IP theft, since, technically, nothing to be stolen.

Progressively more NFT projects are beginning to use a CC0 copyright. Take Goblintown, one of 2022’s most heartwarmingly irreverent NFT projects. Because of its CC0 status, imitations of the project spread like wildfire. In just a few days, Goblintown derivatives took over OpenSea’s volume chart, accounting for an absurd 43.7 percent of total trade volume on the platform on June 2, 2022. Achieving cultural significance is the key to success in the NFT ecosystem, and one of the best ways to do that is with a CC0 license.

Three Goblin figures sit next to each other with different colored backgrounds.
via Goblintown

Abd using a CC0 license can play out really well: just look at the Nouns NFT project, one of the first to experiment with Creative Commons. After voting on various proposals in the Nouns DAO regarding the use of the NFTs in the community, members approved various projects that saw them collaborating with Budweiser, putting out a documentary, creating a Nouns coffee brand, and donating money to support Ukrainian refugees. The result? The Nouns DAO Treasury is currently sitting on 26,270 ETH (nearly $45 million as of August 2022).

Punk4156, one of Nouns’ founders, has long been a vocal advocate for the benefits of CC0. “CC0+NFT does for media what bitcoin did for currency: it transforms an adversarial game into a co-operative one,” said a May tweet from the founder.

The project’s incredible success constitutes a convincing argument for the benefits of CC0 licensing. 

Notable CC0 projects 

Nouns is far from the only thriving project using this kind of license. Chain Runners, Mfers, CrypToadz, and others incorporate CC0 into their foundations and have reaped the benefits. This kind of legal solution is a pristine example of Web3 principles in action. Its embrace by the NFT community has helped create something a little more akin to the decentralized world that many hope it will someday resemble.

CrypToadz NFTs by Gremplin
via CrypToadz

But, like everything else in the NFT space, CC0 is not a one-size-fits-all application, and every project will have different needs.

The CC0 ownership debate

While CC0 licenses might seem like a perfect example of the decentralized nature of Web3, there remains division in the NFT community about their value, function, and implementation.

For example, Moonbirds’ massive announcement in August that they would switch to a CC0 license, nearly five months after the project’s launch, sparked a compelling discussion among artists and collectors in the space.

“So what exactly is the point of owning an #NFT under a CC0 license compared to say, having it right click and saved on your PC?” well-known collector and NFT thought leader Pranksy posed in a tweet reacting to the announcement. “I want my ownership represented, either under commercial or personal use rights. I don’t want extremist groups using it and having no grounds to fight.”

Pranksy’s argument rests on the idea of exclusivity and the representative aspect of owning digital art. Yes, the blockchain may provide an immutable record of that ownership, but does allowing anyone and everyone to use that art for personal and commercial purposes detract from owning it in the first place?

Not so, says wilderness photographer and NFT artist Cath Simard. Pointing to her #freehawaiiphoto as an example of an artwork licensed under CC0, Simard highlighted how releasing the rights to digital art only helps to increase the value of the original, regardless of what people do with the piece.

Pranksy also noted the crucial distinction between a project that goes CC0 from launch and one that changes its mind after the fact, like Moonbirds did. If an owner bought into a project largely because of the lack of a CC0 license and that suddenly gets taken out from under them, does this represent a bad faith move on behalf of the project? Furthermore, what responsibilities, if any, should developers accept in such situations concerning collectors who feel this way?

It will be interesting to see how this division plays out for project DAOs. Given enough dissatisfaction in a community with a choice to take a previously protected IP CC0, for example, projects could see members introducing proposals to alter or influence the decision.

Regardless, this discussion points to a more extensive and ongoing debate in the Web3 world about how centralized the space is and should be. For all the lip service community members and project developers who pay to the idea of decentralization, it’s clear that it’s not a broad brushstrokes solution to the problems of Web2 that should be applied universally.

If anything, the CC0 debate reveals that nobody knows how to balance the benefits and drawbacks of decentralization that come with its application or absence. As early contributors to the next iteration of the web and the creative economy that has come with it, it’s a privilege to witness the healthy and novel discussions that arise in the wake of new horizons for the future of Web3.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect ongoing events like Moonbirds going CC0, more recent ETH exchange rates and treasuries, and the deepening debate on CC0s sparked Moonbirds’ decision.

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