Arts and Culture, Creative Commons and NFTs : why it’s going to take more than a unique token to solve the unique problems faced by arts and culture producers

Author: karen darricades, Head of CC Arts & Culture

I’ve been asked/been asking myself a lot of questions lately about the nature of arts and culture in relation to creative commons. I’m still processing them all. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

What are the unique issues faced by artists in the context of CC and open sharing culture?

Unlike open science or open education there is no clear dichotomy between public and private interests where arts and culture is concerned. If you are working in a medical lab researching a cure for cancer, you are likely working in a publicly funded institution (fully or partially) mandated to share your findings openly with the world, or a private corporation whose work product is protected by patents and intellectual property laws. Either way, you are most likely working on a team, and are being compensated financially for your work efforts, whether or not a cure is produced.

For artists the choice is not so much about private versus public. They take it is a given that their ideas are influenced by artists who came before them and they hope to be influential to the ones who come after, contributing something of value to culture for the ages, i.e. the commons. The issue is more one of relevance versus obscurity. It’s about access to audiences and audience’s access to their works, and the cultural conversation their artistic expressions facilitates. It is not their ideas they are trying to monetize, but rather their work product in order to cover the costs of their labour.

Artists are most often creating their products with little to no compensation upfront and with limited control over the public and private business models, gatekeepers and platforms that mediate their access to audiences once the work is ready to be shared, consumed and circulated.

To make matters worse, the public institutions and private corporations purporting to represent artists’ interests have historically proven themselves to be bad actors or raw deals. Artists are often forced into exclusionary scarcity models for monetization and commonly see the value of their work product making money for platforms, collectors and institutions over time, without benefiting from the financial gains. 

What do NFTs have to do with creative commons?

NFTs present digital artists with a new(ish) way to use digital economies and technology to get paid. For 30 years, net artists have been told there is no market for digital art (in file or plug-in formats), in part because works (and their perfect copies) are too readily available to audiences online. NFTs leverage that same ubiquity to create worth, while basing that value on fan-validation instead of market-forces.  

In theory. 

In practice, the fan-validation is but one factor influencing NFT collectors, whose reasons to buy works are more about speculative financial markets then about peer-power

NFTs, and the smart contracts underwritten by the blockchain are not the first technology to promise the removal of the intermediaries between creator and audience, nor are they the first to leverage fans/followers in an effort to do so. In fact NFTs are an extension of influencer culture and the digital artists with the most followers pre-NFT-boom are the ones with a head start at making financial gains from the minting of their works.

NFTs: Theory vs practice

I met with Kyle Smith about his suggestion that CC could support outlining the terms of the public good while NFT covers the private good, based on the idea that the more ubiquitous the content (by being open and free), the more value it produces as an NFT.

After which, I connected with 5 digital artists selling NFTs, and asked them: 

  1. Have NFT sales had a significant impact on the financial sustainability of your practice by providing more creative control over what artworks you produce or freelance work you take?
  2. Does any of this change how you feel about your “free” content in circulation? 

Not surprisingly, those with the largest social media followings (50k+) were earning the most off NFT sales and they said yes NFT sales have provided them some financial support and freedom in choosing what to create and for whom. They also said NFTs are brought by collectors with crypto-currency not by fans and that some NFT platforms are rapidly morphing to replicate the same elitist and exclusionary models that have always been part of the art market game, and that they had been asked to make exclusive (closed) and limited edition content, functioning more like Patreon, but with crypto-cash within crypto-communities. 

Unfortunately, every artist I spoke with said none of this solves the copyright issues faced by digital artists within the cultural norms of sharing (not referring to the consensual free sharing-intent signalled by the use of CC licensing, but just the general feel that the internet exists outside of copyright or pesky-attribution to creators). Add to that a continued host of issues related to people actually minting works they did not create, undermining the blockchain’s promise of an unquestionable/unhackable transparent ledger validating the provenance of ‘things’ (not only digital ones),  we see practical application undermine theoretical possibility.  

The large print gives and the small print takes away. It seems to me the crypto-optimist view of NFTs do not actually correlate with the realities of digital artists and creative labour structures that continue to commodify the works of a very small few and ignore the traditionally marginalized (and therefor easily exploitable) creative class, writ large. One of the reasons being the way platforms and their algorithms amplify capitalist stratification of power and labour underlying myriad social inequities including the financial precarity of the artist/ arts and culture producer. Because free, openly available and easily accessible by audiences does not equal ubiquity. And without the audience-eyeballs to leverage there is no certain correlation between producing monetary value from that fan-leveraged authority. 

That being said, it still remains a fact that the opposite, i.e not having your work seen, most definitely excludes the artist from the opportunity to leverage their influence at all. And I certainly believe it serves the public good when artists have more creative choices due to additional income streams, be they NFTs, basic income guarantees, grant funding, commissions, sales, etc.

What can CC do for arts and culture producers? 

Kyle Smith suggested CC further clarify the NFT-CC relationship by generating a CC license specific to NFTs. What do you think? What would be the specifics of that license structure? How do we fund the public good that arts & culture produces? 

I am going to keep asking questions and trying to surface the practical good from the theoretical ideals wherever possible, in order to build on them. Participating in outlining the details of the small print. Please join me.

Reach out to me and let me know what I’m missing, where I’m wrong, what new and old ways of creating financial value for the cultural value produced by your work have helped you build a sustainable livelihood for your creative practice?

Linked in this article

Diversity Sells – But Hollywood Remains Overwhelmingly White, Male

Spotify – “Streaming works for record labels,” says Mulligan. “It works for publishers. It works if you’ve got thousands or millions of songs — it all adds up,” Mulligan says. “But if you’ve only got 20 or 30 or 100 songs then it doesn’t. You need scale of catalog to benefit.” 

Smart contracts explained –

“UBI would allow artists to escape the so-called ‘arts industry’ which, for artists, is a mirage, a problematic construction driven by a comparatively well-paid, managerialist class that fetishizes the artist and cannibalises their need to create. “ – 

Image Credits:



1503-1506, Mona Lisa Leonardo da Vinci

1919, L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp, in the public domain


1978, Fernando Botero, Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-SinObraDerivada 4.0

2009, Tuscan MonaLisa – Eino81, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Internationa

 2011 DonkeyHotey., – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) 

Mona Lisa - Caricature


2011, Vipez, Bangladeshi Mona Lisa, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

Bangladeshi Mona Lisa (Mona Lisa, worth1000 entry)

2012, Shimokoshi, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike

2014, Queen Sabine Mondestin Mona Lisa, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) 

The Digital Artist Image

Pixabay License

Free for commercial use 

No attribution required 

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