NFT stands for non-fungible token. It’s generally built using the same kind of programming as cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin or Ethereum, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Physical money and cryptocurrencies are “fungible,” meaning they can be traded or exchanged for one another. They’re also equal in value—one dollar is always worth another dollar; one Bitcoin is always equal to another Bitcoin. Crypto’s fungibility makes it a trusted means of conducting transactions on the blockchain.
NFTs are different. Each has a digital signature that makes it impossible for NFTs to be exchanged for or equal to one another (hence, non-fungible). One NBA Top Shot clip, for example, is not equal to what is the norm; simply because they’re both NFTs. (One NBA Top Shot clip isn’t even necessarily equal to another NBA Top Shot clip, for that matter.)
To understand how creative works get tied to NFTs, one has to understand exactly how an NFT functions. NFTs are unique crypto tokens that are managed on a blockchain.
The blockchain acts as the decentralized ledger that tracks the ownership and transaction history of each NFT, which is coded to have a unique ID and other metadata that no other token can replicate. This process gives NFTs the attributes of originality and scarcity that makes them so attractive when coupled with digital media.
NFTs are coded with software code (called smart contracts) that governs aspects like verifying the ownership and managing the transferability of the NFTs. Like any software application, NFTs can be further programmed beyond the basics of ownership and transferability to also include a variety of other applications and functionality, including those linking the NFT to some other digital asset.
For example, a smart contract could be written to automatically allocate a portion of the amounts paid for any subsequent sale of the NFT back to the original owner, thus giving the owner an ability to realize the benefits of the secondary marketplace. (For more information, see the proposed EIP-2981 standard for handling royalty payments for ERC-721 tokens.)
Thus, when someone makes (or “mints”) an NFT, they are writing the underlying smart contract code that governs the NFT’s qualities, which are added to the relevant blockchain where the NFT is managed.
Many blockchains can be used to manage NFTs, including Ethereum (with its long established ERC-721 and ERC-1155 smart contract standards), Flowchain, and Wax, all of which use a similar process. Notably, certain NFT marketplaces only function with certain blockchains, and so the choice of blockchain to use for an NFT can have real commercial implications for the seller
Creating an NFT
NFTs exist on a blockchain, which is a distributed public ledger that records transactions. You’re probably most familiar with blockchain as the underlying process that makes cryptocurrencies possible.
An NFT is created, or “minted” from digital objects that represent both tangible and intangible items, including:
- Videos and sports highlights
- Virtual avatars and video game skins
- Designer sneakers
Even tweets count. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sold his first ever tweet as an NFT for more than $2.9 million.
Essentially, NFTs are like physical collector’s items, only digital. So instead of getting an actual oil painting to hang on the wall, the buyer gets a digital file instead.
They also get exclusive ownership rights. That’s right: NFTs can have only one owner at a time. NFTs’ unique data makes it easy to verify their ownership and transfer tokens between owners. The owner or creator can also store specific information inside them. For instance, artists can sign their artwork by including their signature in an NFT’s metadata.
Putting NFTs To Work
Blockchain technology and NFTs afford artists and content creators a unique opportunity to monetize their wares. For example, artists no longer have to rely on galleries or auction houses to sell their art. Instead, the artist can sell it directly to the consumer as an NFT, which also lets them keep more of the profits.
In addition, artists can program in royalties so they’ll receive a percentage of sales whenever their art is sold to a new owner. This is an attractive feature as artists generally do not receive future proceeds after their art is first sold.
Art isn’t the only way to make money with NFTs. Brands like Charmin and Taco Bell have auctioned off themed NFT art to raise funds for charity. Charmin dubbed its offering “NFTP” (non-fungible toilet paper), and Taco Bell’s NFT art sold out in minutes, with the highest bids coming in at 1.5 wrapped ether (WETH)—equal to $3,723.83 at time of writing.
An NBA Top Shot generated more than $500 million in sales as of late March. A single LeBron James highlight NFT fetched more than $200,000.
Even celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Lindsay Lohan are jumping on the NFT bandwagon, releasing unique memories, artwork and moments as securitized NFTs.
How to Buy NFTs
If you’re keen to start your own NFT collection, you’ll need to acquire some key items:
First, you’ll need to get a digital wallet that allows you to store NFTs and cryptocurrencies. You’ll likely need to purchase some cryptocurrency, like Ether, depending on what currencies your NFT provider accepts.
You can buy crypto using a credit card on platforms like Coinbase, Kraken, eToro and even PayPal and Robinhood now. You’ll then be able to move it from the exchange to your wallet of choice.
You’ll want to keep fees in mind as you research options. Most exchanges charge at least a percentage of your transaction when you buy crypto.
Popular NFT Marketplaces
Once you’ve got your wallet set up and funded, there’s no shortage of NFT sites to shop. Currently, the largest NFT marketplaces are:
OpenSea.io: This peer-to-peer platform bills itself a purveyor of “rare digital items and collectibles.” To get started, all you need to do is create an account to browse NFT collections. You can also sort pieces by sales volume to discover new artists.
Rarible: Similar to OpenSea, Rarible is a democratic, open marketplace that allows artists and creators to issue and sell NFTs. RARI tokens issued on the platform enable holders to weigh in on features like fees and community rules.
Foundation: Here, artists must receive “upvotes” or an invitation from fellow creators to post their art. The community’s exclusivity and cost of entry—artists must also purchase “gas” to mint NFTs—means it may boast higher-caliber artwork.
For instance, Nyan Cat creator Chris Torres sold the NFT on the Foundation platform. It may also mean higher prices — not necessarily a bad thing for artists and collectors seeking to capitalize, assuming the demand for NFTs remains at current levels, or even increases over time.
Although these platforms and others are host to thousands of NFT creators and collectors, be sure you do your research carefully before buying. Some artists have fallen victim to impersonators who have listed and sold their work without their permission.
The verification processes for creators and NFT listings aren’t consistent across platforms — some are more stringent than others. OpenSea and Rarible, for example, do not require owner verification for NFT listings.
Buyer protections appear to be sparse at best, so when shopping for NFTs, it may be best to keep the old adage “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) in mind.