One of my favorite things about NFTs is that they contain a mechanism for the artist/creator to collect royalties on all of the sales that happen after the initial sale/mint. The creator specifies the royalty percentage when they initially mint the NFT and the NFT marketplaces/smart contracts collect the royalties on future sales and pay them to the creator.
Some forms of creativity have had ongoing economic participation by the creator for many years. In the music industry, there are publishing rights and recorded music rights that are paid to the creator and/or the creator’s financial partners (ie record labels and publishing houses). In the television industry, there are syndication rights. Many of the most successful musicians and television talent have made significant sums of money on these rights.
But for many forms of creativity, the ability to participate in the future value of the work has been absent.
So when I saw the NFT standard emerge, I was really excited about the potential for artists to participate as the value of their work escalates over time.
However, there are clouds on the horizon right now. Some NFT marketplaces have chosen not to enforce NFT creator royalties. There are some valid reasons for this and some not-so-valid reasons.
One valid reason is that “market makers” need very low transaction fees to provide liquidity to a market. A market maker is a participant that trades assets and does not hold them for long-term appreciation. They make money on the spread between where they buy and where they sell. These market makers ensure that there is always a bid on an asset that is being sold and an ask on an asset that is being purchased. Liquidity is essential for markets to work properly and so finding a way for market makers to avoid paying royalties is important. If a creator royalty is 20%, for example, a market maker would either need to underbid by 20% or overprice by 20% in order to break even. That’s not reasonable or feasible.
But there are also less valid reasons. Some newer NFT marketplaces are not enforcing royalties in order to take share from the larger more established NFT marketplaces. While one could argue that is the market working and competition is good for innovation, they are using the NFT creator as a “pawn” in this fight and that really sucks. The NFT creator’s only recourse is to “blacklist” certain NFT marketplaces that won’t enforce royalties and many are reluctant to take that step as it potentially reduces the interest in their work.
Yesterday, OpenSea, the largest established NFT marketplace, partially addressed this issue by announcing a “tool for on-chain enforcement of royalties for new collections.” This will allow NFT creators to require the collection of on-chain royalties when they mint new collections. It is not clear to me whether this tool will only work on OpenSea or if it will work across all NFT marketplaces. Obviously, the latter is the correct approach. OpenSea acknowledged that it does not yet have a good answer for existing NFT collections and is interested in hearing from “the community” on what to do about that.
Another important development in this area comes from USV’s portfolio company Uneven Labs which shipped the Forward Protocol a few weeks ago. The Forward Protocol allows NFT creators to specify that market makers/liquidity providers will not pay royalties on their assets but collectors/long-term holders will. This seems like an incredibly sensible approach and one that the creators and NFT marketplaces should adopt.
Here’s the bottom line for me. A critical part of the NFT innovation is the ability for creators to specify a royalty rate on their work and have it collected in the secondary marketplaces. This is every bit as important an innovation as on-chain art and everything else that comes from the NFT standard. Everyone in the NFT world; creators, marketplaces, collectors, market makers, etc, etc should insist that creator royalties remain a fundamental aspect of NFTs and do whatever is necessary to ensure that happens.