Ethiopian artists have long presented their works for insufficient compensation. The same is true for artists worldwide, to varying degrees. The idea of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is now offering alternatives for artists to generate the income they deserve by ensuring the intactness of their artworks’ copyrights. Even though NFTs are a very recent phenomenon, some Ethiopians are slowly introducing themselves to this parallel digital reality. As much as this new world of NFTs offers an immense opportunity, legal, structural, and ethical challenges still remain to be addressed, writes EBR’s Addisu Deresse.
A non-fungible token (NFT) is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, which is a form of digital ledger, that can be sold and traded. Types of NFT data units may be associated with digital files such as photos, videos, and audio as well as a license to use the asset for a specified purpose.
NFT ledgers claim to provide a public certificate of authenticity or proof of ownership, but the legal rights conveyed by an NFT can be uncertain. NFTs do not restrict the sharing or copying of the underlying digital files, do not necessarily convey the copyright of the digital files, and do not prevent the creation of NFTs with identical associated files.
Though a recent phenomenon, artists and other creators around the world have been creating their paintings, music, and other digital items and trading them on digital markets. The stories of people making money out of their little creativity are astounding. In January 2022, a 22-year-old Indonesian man created an NFT out of his own selfies and sold it for USD1 million. In December 2021, an American NFT collector paid USD450,000 to be the digital neighbor of Snoop Dogg, the famous Black-American rapper. The musician is recreating his life in the metaverse, i.e., the parallel digital universe. Being his neighbor would allow one to attend the digital parties he throws, or talk to him as a neighbor on the digital space.
The Nyan Cat, the widely famous digital cartoon that has been circulating over the internet for more than a decade, was sold for more than 300 Ethereum, one of the digital currencies currently being utilized for digital transactions which is equivalent to more than USD600,000. This does not prevent the cat meme from circulating over the internet or prevent others from liking, sharing, or using the meme. It only means that the ownership has been shared with the person who paid for it.
Stories of people making a living out of selling art have gone so wild and so fast that it is becoming difficult to grasp the full meaning of the transaction. In this wilderness though, some Ethiopians seem to have found their own space within the metaverse. One such Ethiopian is Kiya Tadele.
Kiya, Artist and Model, and her team collectively called Yatreda have been creating various traditional features based in Ethiopian culture and selling them as NFTs. Beginning 2022, Kiya has dropped four projects that she and her team intend to sell as NFTs, or have already done so. The first project entitled ‘Strong Hair’ brought together cultural hairstyles from all over Ethiopia by travelling to locations all over the nation to professionally capture the art and culture of hair styling, and sell them as NFTs—for for 131.41 Ethereum. One Ethereum was equivalent to about USD2,600 by the time she availed her work on the digital market. Overall, she made USD341,666.
Another project of Kiya and her team, entitled ‘Kingdoms of Ethiopia’, attempts to bring back famous personalities in the nation’s history with the model herself playing the character of the Queen of Sheba. The NFTs created out of this particular project have been sold for more than 109.11 Ethereum.
Yatreda has also dropped two other projects entitled ’Movement of the Ancestors’ and ‘Bringing African Kings and Queens Back’. EBR’s research didn’t bring adequate results on how much these projects made.
NFTs have also been used to support the crisis in Tigray. In July 2021, the NGO Save Tigray announced its plan to recreate the various pictures showing the problem in Tigray into NFTs. The plan was put in place to support communities affected by the war. The NGO further announced that the idea will be utilized further to fight other causes such as climate change.
“NFTs have brought a great deal of opportunity for artists,” said Kayvon Tehranian, an NFT advocate during his TedTalk session in December 2021. The issue of copyrights is now more easily and effectively assured. The moment artwork is availed on the NFT market, a copyright code is generated, alleviating the excruciating legal procedures involved with traditional methods of securing copyright.
NFTs are also offering a chance for creators to make money, hence, ensuring the sustainability of the internet itself. Since the internet was launched in the 1990s, trillions of artworks, files, pictures, and other documents have been produced and shared. The only way the internet has sustained itself is with advertising revenue. The owners of the big digital platforms like Google, Facebook, and others have made billions of dollars without sharing their earnings with the creators. Such a business model is not sustainable; creators must be rewarded for the internet to sustain.
“The creator of the Nyan Cat is not only paid when someone first wanted to buy the meme but will also keep making money every time the ownership is passed on to someone else,” says Kayvon.
NFTs are not without criticism though. They have been used as a speculative asset as well as being accused of drawing increasing criticism for the energy cost and carbon footprint associated with validating blockchain transactions. Their frequent use in art scams is also an issue along with claims that their structure is akin to Ponzi schemes.
The extralegal nature of NFT trading usually results in an informal exchange of ownership over the asset that has no legal basis for enforcement, often conferring little more than use as a status symbol. They function like cryptographic tokens, but, unlike cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, NFTs are not mutually interchangeable, hence not fungible. While all bitcoins are equal, each NFT may represent a different underlying asset and thus may have a different value.
The tokens are created when blockchains string records of cryptographic hash, a set of characters identifying a set of data, 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 such as where the art is stored can be affected by link rot.
The copyright challenge is not as easy as Kayvon tried to present. Ownership of an NFT does not inherently grant copyright or intellectual property rights to the digital asset a 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 proof of ownership that is separate from copyright.
“In one sense, the purchaser acquires whatever the art world thinks they have acquired,” says an American legal scholar. “They definitely do not own the copyright to the underlying work unless it is explicitly transferred.”
Abel Assefa is a monument Maintenance Professional, Artist, and Photographer. In May 2021, he organized a photo exhibition of Ethiopian cultural hairstyles. The event exhibited 60 of 20,000 photographs taken by a group of Germans traveling through communities in the southern parts of Ethiopia. The cost was USD67 per photograph for copyright payment but to be handed over to Abel as part of the collaboration on the exhibition.
“People have approached me with the idea of recreating my photographs into NFTs as a source of income,” Abel told EBR. “I am more into promoting and preserving the culture as I am not trained to do the earlier.”
Abel has plans of exhibiting the photographs in Jinka, southern Ethiopia, at the South Omo Research Center, where most of the communities in the pictures reside. Abel and colleagues also have the intention of handing over the photographs to the research center for further study and display. He has also convinced the Germans to hand over digital versions of the 20,000 photographs to the Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency.
For Abel, the idea of NFTs is of concern despite its capacity to garner revenue for artists or the guaranteeing of copyrights—both of which he admires. Rather, the issue of ethics is what concerns him more.
“Let’s be honest; there is nothing the artist does in creating the hairstyles themselves,” Abel argues. “We just take pictures of them and make money off of it.”
Abel strongly argues the practice must be institutionalized in order to demarcate what is ethical and not. Due recognition is required in its correct place.
“We cannot just take a picture of a living human being and sell it as if it is a dead sculpture,” Abel told EBR. “There must be an explainer as to who the individuals, the cultures, and the communities are.”
EBR 10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106