Non-fungible tokens, known colloquially as NFTs, have gained popularity due to both their scarcity and variety. NFTs can link to underlying assets that range from physical works of art to social media posts to memes. However, NFTs associated with music are especially poised to challenge traditional intellectual property rights and the future of the music industry.
NFTs have been praised as a new way for artists in a music industry typically run by record labels to take back their autonomy. Musicians are generally paid negligible amounts of money from streaming services and are all but required to sign with record labels who take over the rights to material produced by artists. In response to this, the rise of music NFTs provides a promising route to supplemental income. NFTs provide a built-in record of ownership that travels beyond the first sale, facilitating resale royalties that can provide some percentage of revenue to the original artist on subsequent sales of music. This could pave the way to returning some control to artists who typically sign over ownership rights in their music.
NFTs also facilitate creative experimentation and allow fans to invest in and contribute to music production. By capitalizing on the unique experiences that already define the music industry, NFTs allow artists to release limited edition songs or other fan experiences to supplement their music. For example, Shawn Mendes has teamed up with tech company Genies to launch NFTs based on his signature accessories. NFTs also allow artists and fans to remix one another’s music and facilitate cross-industry collaboration between musical artists and visual artists, as evidenced by popular DJ Steve Aoki’s NFT collaboration with digital artist Maciej Kuciara. These novel concepts enhance the scarcity factor that makes NFTs so appealing, contributing further to their benefits for artists and fans alike.
Yet as with much new technology, the promise of NFTs may have a limit when it comes to intellectual property. This issue caused a recent media storm when HitPiece, a controversial NFT platform, attempted to sell NFTs of songs taken from Spotify’s publicly available metadata without permission from the original artists or labels. Following claims from multiple artists that the NFTs infringed their intellectual property rights, HitPiece has since stopped its NFT activity without explanation. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has also written a letter to the company demanding it to cease infringing intellectual property by keeping its website down permanently.
A largescale controversy like this may call into question the extent to which NFTs can indeed provide artists with a new source of autonomy and revenue. As the RIAA’s chief legal officer noted, HitPiece led fans to believe they were purchasing an NFT associated with the artist of the underlying music, when in fact the artists had no idea such a concept existed. A situation like this could lead to a mistaken influx of revenue to a third party completely unrelated to the artist responsible for the original musical work.
This type of appropriation of intellectual property is a common concern related to NFTs due to consumer misconceptions of what purchasing an NFT entails. An NFT is simply a digital copy of an underlying work, not the work itself, and does not typically convey any intellectual property rights with its sale without a separate agreement. However, consumers unaware of this may believe, as with the HitPiece NFTs, that they are in fact purchasing more than a mere copy of the work. NFTs are commonly marketed as unique and exclusive collectibles, further feeding this confusion. This can lead to fraud because, on many platforms, users can easily mint NFTs of underlying works with which they have no association. In one highly publicized instance, a bot called @tokenizedtweets created NFTs of tweets without notifying the authors of the tweets. When it comes to music, the emotions involved in the underlying art are likely even greater.
The HitPiece controversy provides a window into what the future may hold for new technologies like NFTs that implicate intellectual property rights. While NFTs seem to promise a new entertainment landscape that prioritizes novel types of artistic autonomy and production, they may also significantly endanger artists’ rights in their works. As NFTs become more ubiquitous, this tension will likely continue to grow, leading to mounting questions about how to protect rights while incentivizing new forms of creativity in an evolving music industry.