this is aaronland

escape velocity as asset class

cheap money, so to speak

I don't have much to say on the subject of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). They are all the rage these days mostly, it seems, because they are understood as a fast and furious speculative window for achieving a kind of financial escape velocity. Compounding the issue is the idea that escape velocity has become, broadly speaking, the only way we know how to measure success anymore. Recently NFTs intersected with the still nascent push to make cultural heritage collections, and in particular imagery of those collections, open and accessible under the most liberal and permissive terms possible. You won't believe, as they say, what happened next.

There's been quite a lot of anger and concern about people creating and selling NFTs derived from open-access cultural heritage collections, notably the Rijksmuseum. The subject came up recently in a forum for museum people. I am posting an annotated version of what I said there mostly to have a record of it for myself and because I can imagine having to reference it in the future.

I am struggling to see how they (NFTs) in a museum context are any different from postcards in the shop. Given the sector’s terrible history with image rights and the dream of having the proverbial Mona Lisa postcard that will be so popular as to fund the rest of the museum I am... skeptical.

If you don't live and breathe the business of museums that last comment, about the Mona Lisa postcard, might seem a little obscure. One of the principal roadblocks to cultural heritage institutions publishing openly licensed versions of their collection imagery is the fear of a loss of revenue from the sale of that imagery. The reality is that the sales of image rights in museums are so paltry that the costs to administer the restrictions around them exceed any profits they generate. There are, it's true, a small handful of museums with one or two works whose narrative pedigree ensures consistent sales and something like a profit. It doesn't matter that these handful of images are the outliers. Everyone wants to believe that their collections are just as popular.

The Rijksmuseum famously said they hoped people had toilet paper printed with their collection on it.

They really did. I no longer remember which conference it was at but I was in the audience when it happened.

Since the Rijksmuseum collection was released under a public domain license said NFT-company isn’t doing anything wrong and is actually under no obligation to share revenue(s) with the museum.

I said earlier that NFT + museums smelled like postcards of old but there is a plausible argument that it’s just a fancy tip jar, as in people buy some part of an artwork but the only thing they are actually buying is a warm and fuzzy feeling. A warm and fuzzy feeling that, technically, you could resell in the same way that we got ourselves in to the subprime mortgage mess...

A bit later I summarized all of that as:

Public domain means you don’t get to choose, the Rijksmuseum went in to this with eyes open, museums have a terrible track record when it comes to image rights so who are we to judge and basically a glorified tip-jar.

And because I couldn't help myself, I went on to say:

This dynamic has been playing out in the software world since the advent of free or open source software, most recently with the efforts of companies like Elastic(search) that provide hosted services for the free software they maintain to prevent other companies (notably Amazon) from hosting their own cheaper versions.

You also see it in the never-ending debate around the licensing of OpenStreetMap data which switched from being distributed under a Creative Commons license to the Open Database license which is effectively a viral “copyleft” license aimed to prevent commercial enterprises from reaping the rewards of the (OSM) community’s work without giving anything back.

Ever since the introduction of the GNU Public License for software, which judging by the tenor of the comments about NFTs is what people are looking for for cultural heritage works, there have been the MIT and BSD software licenses that say: Do whatever you want with this code, including using it in commercial projects or for otherwise questionable uses.

But fundamentally, putting things in the public domain means a) You don’t get to choose and b) You believe that the benefit of making these things available outweighs their occasional misuse. Which has essentially been the message of both the Rijksmuseum and the Smithsonian (not to mention Europeana) in releasing their data.

It's worth repeating: You believe that the benefit of making these things available outweighs their occasional misuse.

Even though it doesn’t really pass the smell-test the people issuing NFTs around this stuff aren’t doing anything “wrong”. The whole thing would be a good opportunity for the sector to point out the folly of the (NFT) endeavour but I wonder whether the sector won’t instead get swept away by the jealously and envy of cheap money, so to speak.

On that last point there is also a whole other conversation to be had about whether or not there is any meaningful distinction between NFTs for works in our collections and named or sponsored galleries. That is probably still too raw for most museums to want to talk about in public, though.