Are expiring copyrights the next goldmine for NFTs?

Although non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are most commonly known in the form of digital art, they exist in many other forms and represent much more than just art. 

In the creative industry, NFTs have been used by musicians such as Kings of Leon to release their latest album. In the sports industry, NFTs are created to record the highlights of major sporting events such as the NBA. In the consumer product industry, Nike, Gucci and many others are selling their digital branded products in the form of NFTs. A lot more real-world applications of NFTs are still to be explored and one of them is the digital publishing industry.

The game-changing implications of publishing and promoting books with NFTs have already been discussed extensively by many. For example, the Alliance of Independent Authors are helping indie authors to promote their latest books using NFTs. Other associated items for the fans club such as character cards are also made into NFTs. Tezos Farmation, a project built on Tezos network, even uses the complete text of George Orwell’s Animal Farm book and slices it up into 10,000 pieces to use as titles for the NFTs.

NFTs created from existing books are normally bound to copyrights. However, in the case of Tezos Farmation, the copyright had already expired. The text from the book can be used by any party for free. This triggers a very interesting question – how can NFTs preserve copyrights and royalties for books with expired copyrights?

The NFT application in the publishing industry is so far mostly focused on books that still have royalties and within their copyrights lifespan. But there are authors whose work lives on long past both their mortal existence and that of their copyrights; can NFTs provide their estates a means to extend the life of the book and its royalties?

The journey from copyright to public domain

Copyright laws are complex and vary widely throughout the world. Although few countries offer no copyright protection in line with international conventions, most jurisdictions work on the premise that copyright is protected for the author’s life plus a minimum of 25 years after their death.

In the European Union, copyright is protected for 70 years after the death of the latest living author. It is the same in the U.S, with the exception that books originally published between 1927 and 1978 are protected

for 95 years after the first publication. No matter how long the copyrights are protected for, given enough time, anything will end up free in the public domain.

When celebrated literature enters the public domain the future value of the work is essentially reduced to zero. However, there often remains a disconnected community who intrinsically value the work.

Estates holding copyrights that are about to fall into the public domain have a unique opportunity to create a tangible asset in the form of NFTs from the intangible goodwill embedded in the disconnected community.

A good example would be Winnie-the-Pooh, a fictional anthropomorphic teddy bear created by English author A. A. Milne and English illustrator E. H. Shepard is loved by fans all over the world. The first collection of stories about the character was created in 1926. After almost 96 years, the copyrights had expired and the book moved into the public domain on Jan 1, 2022. The estate holding the copyright will receive no future value from Winnie-the-Pooh even though the commercial value of such a world-wide famous cartoon character will remain high for a long time.

Just prior to the copyright expiring, the controlling estate has the window of opportunity where no one else is legally entitled to do anything with the works. If the estate had spent time connecting fans with an interest in NFTs, building or collaborating with a project that resonates with them, and launching the NFT collection prior to the completion of the copyright period, the outcome would have been very different. There could have been a much longer copyright lifespan for Winne-the-Pooh.

Related: Experts explain how music NFTs will enhance the connection between creators and fans

Extending the value of an expiring copyright

Currently, publishing houses have no incentives to collaborate with the estate of copyright holders that are about to enter the public domain because the work will soon be free. A certificate of authenticity represented by a tradable NFT might provide an incentive for such collaborations.

After the copyright expires and the work goes into the public domain, the NFTs will carry the royalty further into the digital world. Royalties can be generated through sales in the NFT marketplace on the blockchain, or through even more complex smart contracts created for specific use cases for first edition, limited edition or signed vintage copies.

The estates holding expiring copyrights have credibility, which is a precious asset in the NFT world, and they have nothing to lose. They are in the box seat to capitalize on their current ownership, and potential for a digital community.

Beloved characters and the worlds they inhabit can be a solid foundation for not only NFTs that can extend copyrights, but also extended creativity across mediums like literature, gaming, Metaverse, charity, education and many more to come.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Every investment and trading move involves risk, you should conduct your own research when making a decision.