There are many facets to what NFTs can be and do, one of which is called Creative Commons Zero (CC0). The difference between an NFT and a CC0 NFT has to do with their copyrights, which seem at odds with one another.
NFTs are a form of digital property; they are used to certify ownership through attribution and to harness a feeling of digital possessiveness - owning an exclusive piece that comes with a lot of legalities around its intellectual property. A designation of CC0, however, means the creator waives their intellectual property rights, and thus, CC0 NFTs permit users to share, remix, and reuse works for both commercial and non-commercial purposes without requiring permission from - or the need to attribute to - the original creator. In this respect, the two sit at opposite ends of the copyright spectrum.
In recent months we have seen an increase in projects that use CC0 as a new business model for NFTs. This adoption of CC0 NFTs is an engaging idea that speaks to the initial principles of democratization of information that many foresaw being established in the early 1990s with the world wide web. Therefore, this clash of CC0 licensing and NFTs feels like a strange juxtaposition that challenges the very ideas of value and ownership.
The conversation around NFTs and copyright is by no means new, but the discussion was resparked with the launch of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) project in April 2021, which gave BAYC NFT holders the commercial rights over their tokens.
While this initiative is not CC0, it highlights a new model of NFT holders benefiting from new commercial enterprises with their tokens. The project has greatly benefited from this distribution of rights. It has created a new kind of value economy around the project where value is derived from both the initial project and the wider projects that were created as a byproduct from the commercial rights allowed.
This idea has been described as a hybrid model to intellectual property composed of centralized elements (Yuga Labs - creators of BAYC, among others) and decentralized elements (how NFT holders use their NFTs). For example, Yuga Labs has continued to contribute value through the project such as physical events, and a new metaverse, while NFT holders have contributed value in other ways such as through new derivatives, merchandise, beer, and even a music video. These new initiatives do not directly contribute financial value to Yuga Labs but instead provide value through virality (spreading awareness) and facilitating a stronger sense of community.
The Digital Copyright Spectrum
BAYC showcases how relinquishing certain rights over works can be hugely beneficial and valuable for a project. Below is a spectrum on digital copyright that we see typically used for digital content. The terms used relate to creative commons licensing, a set of standards developed in the early 2000s by a group of activists and scholars headed by Professor Laurence Lessig.
On one end of the spectrum is complete freedom to use the work in any way without attribution (CC0), and with each license a new condition is added: crediting the author, conditions for adaptations, only being able to share the work, and not having any sharing or remixing rights at all (full copyright).
This spectrum of rights does not aim to suggest that one end is ‘better’ than the other. Rather, the nuance to these licenses provides opportunities to explore different avenues with copyright, and BAYC is a case in point since it showcases how deploying CC BY can be a valuable new business model for NFT campaigns.
BAYC’s model relies on the exclusivity that NFT holders have over the commercial use of their NFTs, so it seems contradictory that CC0 NFTs release this exclusivity. This challenge to exclusivity raises questions about the value or motivation for buyers to invest in these kinds of projects. Moreover, many CC0 projects appear to have no roadmap or any other clear utility value (see Goblintown as one case in point), which further questions the value of these tokens and how such projects could be successful.
A strong marketing campaign is evidently one part of the success of these projects. For example, Krakken’s in-depth analysis on Goblintown highlights how the project has had a careful plan in raising awareness of the project which included baffling Twitter Spaces where speakers simply spoke ‘Goblin’ to each other. The sales approach is also a factor, as showcased by Nouns, which has auctioned off one Noun NFT everyday since launch and in doing so initiates a sense of exclusivity.
Meanwhile, Mfers highlights the underlying ideology as another key attribute to these NFT campaigns. In explaining the backstory of the project, Sartoshi (creator of Mfers) described the following:
As I was building the collection, punk4156 and punk6529 and others were tweeting about the potential benefits of experimenting with releasing NFTs as public domain (CC0 license) where the creator basically releases the copyright over the creation so that anyone can essentially use it for whatever they want (making their own nft, products, merchandise, etc)--meanwhile blockchain shows that the owner of the original nft always still has the og item […]
[…] The world of mfers I envisioned would epitomize the simple idea that “we all mfers.” there is no king, ruler, or defined roadmap--and mfers can build whatever they can think of with these mfers. [...]. There's also no official discord. mfers then created an ‘officially unofficial discord’ that now has thousands of members doing remarkable things, so I hear. I am not in it - this is by design. Mfers don’t need sartoshi’s approval or looking over their shoulder as they experiment and build. My view of what is most valuable for me to offer to mfer holders is to amplify the best of their ideas and creations to reach vastly greater audiences and add value for holders when the opportunities strike.
Clearly, Sartoshi has been inspired by the possibilities that CC0 can offer. They see this as creating a more horizontal and decentralized model to NFTs that transgresses the relationship between creator and NFT holder.
Sartoshi is not alone in this view. In August 2022, Moonbirds and Oddities were moved to CC0 licensing under similar perspectives with a tweet from co-founder Kevin Rose announcing this approach as being ‘more respectful’ to the values of web3. This decision was met with some controversy due to it occurring post-launch of Moonbirds and Oddites. Nevertheless, these projects, along with Mfers, highlight a key point associated with interest around CC0 NFTs.
CC0 represents the underlying principles of early internet culture in the 1990s which was founded on decentralization and peer-to-peer sharing. Initiatives such as the open source movement and copyleft aimed to disrupt formal understandings of ownership in the digital space by promoting a digital commons, a space that is free for everyone, and owned by no-one. In doing so, it aimed to promote inclusivity, openness, and creativity.
By combining CC0 and NFTs, projects such as Mfers also aim to promote these ideas of inclusivity, openness, and creativity. Similarly, these projects also highlight how ‘utility’ or formal rights are not the only sources of value in NFTs. Indeed, these kinds of projects help to challenge the perception that NFTs are simply there to ring-fence culture.
In this respect, perhaps our focus on the value or ownership of a specific CC0 NFT misses the broader point about what these projects attempt to achieve. CC0 NFTs are a way to activate a conversation about what it means to own a digital token. They help us to reexamine our own assumptions about digital ownership. Additionally, CC0 projects challenge us to think more broadly about the idea of value and to recognize that value is not only formed through economic incentives but also holds a psychological and socially driven nature.