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Mon Feb 06 2023
For many digital artists, a big part of the draw of web3 is capturing the value of your own work. But some of the most popular NFT projects over the past year or so have taken a different approach: CC0 licensing. CC0, or Creative Commons Zero, is a licensing model that allows creators to waive their rights to their art, giving others the freedom to share it, build upon it, and even make money off of their derivative creations.
Nouns DAO’s rolling collection of algorithmically generated pixel art characters was one of the first major NFT projects to adopt such a licensing model. The DAO’s NFTs are totally open-source, meaning that anyone can create their own Nouns-based merchandise or spin-off collections. Since then, several other projects — like Moonbirds, Cryptoadz, and Goblintown — have followed suit, encouraging fans to iterate on their IP.
A CC0 NFT, or more specifically a Creative Commons Zero NFT, is a unique type of non-fungible token that comes with a copyright license that allows anyone to use it for any commercial purpose. It’s the most open of all the Creative Commons licenses — and even more open than full commercial rights, which only apply to the person who owns the NFT in question.
While the shift towards CC0 licensing has led to an explosion of creativity in the NFT space, the jury is still out on whether it’ll be beneficial for artists in the long run. On one hand, releasing work under a CC0 license means that a creator is contributing to the digital commons, fostering collaboration, and potentially opening up new economic opportunities for themselves and others. On the other hand, the practice could establish a standard where artists feel compelled to give up their rights for the sake of growth and exposure. It also means that anyone can build off of your work — including bad actors who might try to rip a collection off for a quick buck.
In a special collaboration with FWB, Felt Zine spoke to six web3 creators — including Broadside co-founder Matt Mason, OKPC co-creator Scotato, and All-Starz NFT artist Stone ✰ — about their experiences releasing CC0 collections, the advantages and potential drawbacks of open-source licenses for creators, and how they see the strategies NFT artists use to make a living evolving in the future. Their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why did you decide to make your collection CC0?
Skomra, crypto-AI artist: If you switch disciplines for a moment and think about the “golden age” of hip-hop, there was a lot of reuse of source material that wasn’t being policed or monetized. After a certain point, the corporations (and their lawyers) stepped in and put a lot of fences around who could reuse what, when they could reuse it, and how much it would cost. I think the disappointment with that type of transition, which limits creativity, is what makes CC0 so appealing.
I had previous exposure to the CC0 idea around 2008, from following the broader photography community. I agreed in principle with CC0 back then, but there was a worry about your work ending up in advertisements for products you might not want to be associated with. My feeling was that once you posted an image online, you couldn’t stop someone from reusing it. I just didn't have a framework like CC0 NFTs to formalize my relation to the free-flowing nature of images on the internet.
I think reuse restrictions limit the original's value and potential, [especially with] cultural work. Sometimes there is a need to limit [this] value and potential, for financial or even ethical concerns. But as someone who sees cultural relevance as equally important as, or even more important than, financial success, CC0 seems like a way to enhance the chances that a single work might be culturally relevant.
Matt Mason, co-founder of Broadside: The application of CC0 licenses in the context of NFTs and tokenomics adds a whole new dimension to it all. It makes remix culture scaleable.
We leveraged many existing CC0 NFTs in the Broadside collection. Some Broadsiders have traits and art from XCOPY, Rektguy, Moonbirds, Goblintown, Nouns, Blitmaps, Kristy Glas, CrypToadz, Eclectic Method, Grillz Gang, Robness, Zakalwe, Waxbones, and others. The dilemma we faced was that we also really liked the idea of giving Broadside holders full commercial rights. So we made Broadsiders with CC0 traits from other collections “CC0 Broadsiders,” whereas Broadsiders without CC0 traits come with full commercial rights. We’ve seen our community do amazing things with both types of Broadsiders, [underscoring] the point that there is more than one right way to give holders ways to develop a collection further.
Scotato, co-creator of OKPC: OKPC came out of our love for other community-driven projects in the space. We chose to make the collection CC0 to enable compatibility and composability with other projects and communities. Choosing CC0 is not only a decision about licensing; it’s an opportunity to connect with other creators who are excited to explore a new collaborative and open environment.
How can an artist benefit from making a free mint, CC0 collection with potentially no resale royalties?
Infinite Yay, NFT artist working on a CC0 collection: One of the main benefits of creating a free mint CC0 collection is the positive impact it can have on other artists and the artistic community at large. By releasing a creative asset that a community is free to build upon, you give [people] something to come together around.
CC0 collections can also work as promotional tools. When someone creates with your CC0 art, they are likely to mention it when they release it, which opens you up to their audience. That’s huge. Building a community is arguably more important than earning royalties — it will eventually lead to sales and larger opportunities.
@defnullx ⌐◨-◨, builder at NounsOS: I believe that the direct benefit for the artist is in the gain of greater visibility for their work, which could lead to them participating in other events and projects and, consequently, various opportunities.
Matt Mason: As crypto winter started to bite, we saw a lot of pressure from traders for all three of these features to be included in collections. But for us, as creators, no royalties in particular just didn't make any sense. We wanted to fund a Web3 franchise in a new way from the ground up, which for us meant a mint price and creator royalties as opposed to asking a publisher or a label or a studio for an advance. Without creators here building interesting new art and culture, this is all just penny stocks with pictures.
Scotato: Some creators who want to make royalty-free CC0 collections are choosing to reserve a portion of the collection to sell, trade, or hold to capture a portion of the value they are creating.
Skomra: I don’t think an open-edition free mint is always the best solution, but under this scenario, the artist could reserve ten percent of the supply for themselves. Both of my “free” mints have been 0.001 ETH, to discourage bots and over-minting. With Manifold, I used the “max one per wallet” setting and would mint one myself for every ten [that others minted]. My benefit is that if the edition becomes valuable, I have a small but significant portion of the work that I could hypothetically sell (in a careful way) at some point.
Also, [I’ve noticed that open editions can increase] the memetic power of the image. Having the same token in many wallets increases the chances of people mentioning it, putting it in Cryptovoxels/oncyber galleries, and even using it as their avatar. So a lot of the benefit there is increasing your reach.
Stone ✰, artist and illustrator at Allstarz: Free + CC0 with zero royalties can be tricky. That said, I think it’s [about] giving your collectors more flexibility in the process, with less stress on devs and collectors knowing that there isn’t much at stake, which can be the exact recipe you need to make things more fun and build out organically. I do believe that artists deserve royalties, though.
What are some ways you have seen your work transformed through CC0 by your community?
Stone ✰: Just cool collaging of our characters. We had a bunch of our members make mixtape covers with their Allstarz. We haven’t seen any derivatives yet, but some of our members have made some awesome experimental one-of-ones.
Matt Mason: We've seen our community do amazing things because of CC0. We didn’t have to ask permission to use any of the CC0 traits from people like XCOPY, Kristy Glas, Eclectic Method, or Grillz Gang, but we did go out and seek the blessing of a lot of the artists and collections we included, which has helped us build a really strong community around Broadside. Grillz Gang and Broadside have even become intertwined on a story level.
A lot of these artists and communities regularly come to our pirate radio shows on Twitter Spaces. Eclectic Method and Neon Glitch built a dedicated Broadside Bunker for us to host metaverse raves on Monaverse. Eclectic has been DJing on our pirate radio Spaces, has done a couple of banging remixes of Broadside Riddim, made Broadside music videos, and even put a Broadsider in his upcoming CC0 fighting game, Blockchain Brawl.
CC0 let us collaborate with artists we love, and then as a result of that, those artists joined us to form a new type of community we couldn't have imagined. It’s value in the sense that it is new work and more fans and engagement — but more than that, it’s a cultural value.
Scotato: We have seen the OKPC community embrace CC0 through derivative projects such as OKGO and OKPC Network. We’ve also seen OKPC make appearances in other projects, such as the Crypto Coven Narrators Hut, the Chain Runners’ XR trailer, and the upcoming CC0 project 1337 Skulls.
What are the potential disadvantages of this format for working artists? Do you worry about artists or collectors making a profit from products produced with your IP?
Infinite Yay: I personally love to see other artists and collectors making sales. It means the community is alive!
Matt Mason: We don’t worry about others profiting from Broadside. In fact, we welcome it. At Art Basel, we were mobbed by community members wearing Broadside t-shirts, [even though] we haven't made any “official” Broadside shirts yet. A community member started a coffee company called Mud Siders featuring Broadsiders they owned, and someone opened a restaurant in Germany using Broadside branding.
All of this activity lifts the Broadside community as a whole. If Mud Siders becomes the next Starbucks, that doesn’t hurt us. We were never going to start a coffee company, and even if we did, Mud Siders would be additive.
Scotato: I would consider [other artists and collectors making a profit from CC0 IP a success], assuming the derivative work is an extension or progression of the original work. It’s mostly understood by collectors and the community that the original creators of CC0 IP determine what is and is not canon. Ultimately, [creators] should be able to release additional IP that commands a higher value than derivative works.
Skomra: A lot of artists are using other [people’s] CC0 work as a jumping-off point, or inspiration, for making [their own] great work. That’s not truly collaborative, though, in that most interactions have been one-directional and there aren’t many responses to derivatives coming back from creators. I would like to see that type of work, but honestly, there has been so little of it that it’s hard to say.
[That said], I’d be honored if someone were to make a jacket or a tote bag with one of my works. If being on physical merch was my goal, I could do it myself, but that’s not something I’m interested in doing myself. I’d think of it as a type of promotion of my work — one that wouldn’t have happened without the work being CC0.
@defnullx: One of the disadvantages with CC0 is when there is a lack of ethics. Even if it is CC0, it is always good to credit the person responsible for what you are using.
Creators used to make money with secondary royalties. Now, some marketplaces are prioritizing zero-percent creator royalties for collections. How do you see this change affecting the way CC0 NFT projects create value for creators?
Stone ✰: I don’t believe there is much of a future in NFTs without creator royalties.
Matt Mason: From where we are standing, it seems like OpenSea really changed this conversation for the better [by deciding to honor creator royalties]. The OpenSea team did right by creators at a moment when other marketplaces initially decided not to, and that helped bring other marketplaces on the side too in terms of the royalty debate. They have been super thoughtful and open with us every step of the way with Broadside, which minted right in the middle of this whole debate. [Note: OpenSea, Zora, Foundation, Manifold, Nifty Gateway, and SuperRare recently pledged to jointly enforce creator royalties as part of the Creator Ownership Research Institute, a collaborative organization aiming to “fund and create improved mechanisms for creator ownership tooling.” ]
Nobody has complained to us about Broadside having secondary royalties. I think everyone who likes the project is invested in the way we are doing this, because it’s letting us reinvest in Broadside and continue to grow it beyond everything we announced at launch. We didn’t build Broadside because we were excited about creating a short-term arbitrage opportunity for paper hands — and unless that’s what motivates you, you shouldn't worry about setting royalties to zero percent. Do what’s right for your collection.
Scotato: Unfortunately, [some of the] major marketplaces people used to trading digital collectibles have decided to abandon royalties. This will likely require CC0 creators to start charging a fee for the initial project release and/or follow-up releases to continue creating work in this domain.
Skomra: I have chosen zero-percent creator royalties on my collections. (I think that I might not be able to set the royalties for my Foundation contract to zero, but I’m talking about everything I have control over here). [Nouns co-creator] @4156, @davidzhorvath, and @matascup were ahead of me on this one. I recognized that a zero-percent royalty is more in keeping with the crypto ethos. That is, it reduces friction and promotes the use of your token.
[At first], I had a personal emotional attachment to the idea that someday the works I create might be valuable enough to pay out meaningful royalties in the future. [As I explained], I eventually came around to the idea that most of this could be accomplished by reserving 10 percent of the supply for myself. I want to stress that as a collector I don’t object to paying royalties to the artists I collect from, however.
Is CC0 more of a benefit for the creator, communities, or derivative creators?
Scotato: In the best-case scenario, a CC0 project benefits the original creator, derivative creators, and community roughly equally.
Matt Mason: I think it benefits all three of these groups. Part of the plot of Broadside is that in 2037, Right-click and Save As-guy by XCOPY is hanging next to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and is worth billions of dollars, and kids all over the world wear vintage CC0 NFT shirts the same way people wear vintage tour merch today because, [thanks to CC0], early web3 art has become a wider part of global culture. It’s a WIN-WIN-WIN for all kinds of creative communities.
Skomra: I’m going to go a little bit outside the question here and say CC0 is a benefit to humanity. It empowers us to take stories that are meaningful to us and to modify them to better reflect our lives. We can extend them (expand the world of the work), remake them (do our own take), or fix them (clean up any problems). If you look at Francis Bacon’s “screaming popes,” [you’ll see that] rather than somehow harming Velázquez’s original, they bring attention to it. Why would you want any kind of legal ambiguity around letting someone else try to enhance the narrative of your work?
Stone ✰: I think it benefits everyone. More derivatives help keep the interest high, which also helps grow more ideas.
How do you see the strategies that NFT artists use to earn a living evolving in the years to come?
Matt Mason: I don’t think there is one business model for NFTs. There’s a different model for every artist and collection and community. We’ve never seen art, technology, and decentralized finance collide in this way before, and I think we are still just scratching the surface of what’s possible.
Scotato: I don’t think it’s necessary for an NFT artist to abide by whatever the current NFT meta trends may be. Ultimately, an artist is a cultural lens, and if they can capture something compelling and exciting, they can sell that thing directly to their audience.
Infinite Yay: I see royalties as a big part of the way creators will make a living with NFTs in the future. There will be more and more platforms and experiences that your creations can exist in. If the idea of metaverses takes off as people envision it, your creations will be able to flow between so many different experiences, people, and realms. If royalties are ingrained in the way that many are fighting for them to be, creators will have endless ways to make a living off their work, instead of relying on single sales.
Skomra: I think “earning a living” has always been tough for artists, and crypto art doesn’t change a whole lot about that dynamic. In any cultural endeavor, most of the attention and resources go to “winners” like XCOPY — that’s a fundamental part of attention that can't easily be changed by any of the tools we currently have at our disposal. Crypto art makes it easier to get your art permanently recorded and to transfer the art, but it doesn’t make it much easier to get attention and resources.
If it’s really about attention, artists need new tools to get and maintain attention for work that deserves it. Right now, there is a lot of good work that gets made (and possibly collected) but just disappears, because online galleries and collection pages don't always successfully maintain interest in great works. I hope the next tools that we see can address this gap between last week's amazing drop and the eternal.
Stone ✰: No idea. One thing I will say, though, is that artists adapt. They will always find a way to make things work.
Art by Mark Sabb
Devon Moore, aka Dev Moore, is a net artist, curator, creative technologist, and the co-creative director of Felt Zine. Dev’s work incorporates technology, modern-day youth experiences, personhood, music culture, and more while referencing tech culture components.
Mark Sabb is an artist, curator, creative technologist, and the founder of Felt Zine. He is also the head of content and digital strategy at The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. He was previously the senior director of innovation at the Museum of the African Diaspora and established the museum’s digital presence with pioneering on-site AR/VR implementations.
FELT Zine is an internet art collective that creates digital and in-person experiences to examine digital activism, hip-hop culture, race, gender, and class through the medium of web3 and metaverse projects. The collective was founded in 2011 as an independent fashion magazine, soon after transitioning into an art collective, and eventually producing 3D and digital art NFTs. Felt Zine also hosts IRL art parties and curates exhibitions worldwide. It recently partnered with fashion powerhouse Givenchy to create an NFT-enhanced fashion collection, and was included in the Dazed100 class of 2022.
Special thanks to Cameron Parkins, for helping to make this piece happen