Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht, Who Proved the Case for Bitcoin, Can Do So for NFTs

Ulbricht’s NFT project could be a sea change for credibly neutral charity efforts.

CoinDesk Insights
Dec 3, 2021 at 5:48 p.m. UTC
Updated Dec 20, 2021 at 9:18 p.m. UTC

Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.

Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road online marketplace that hosted everything from children’s books to ketamine, is selling a non-fungible token (NFT) with the proceeds going to his legal fund and children of incarcerated parents.

Founded in 2011, Silk Road is often cited as the first true “use case” of bitcoin. It proved that fully decentralized digital money could be used reliably and without being censored. The marketplace became something of a media curiosity – drugs were being sold quite openly – and was shut down by the feds.

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Ulbricht is now serving two consecutive life sentences, plus 40 years, without the option of parole. He’s risen to a near-mythic status within the crypto community for putting his life on the line to make the libertarian case that individuals should be able to decide who to interact with and what to buy – a similar aim of the Bitcoin network.

Now, his latest auction might demonstrate the same utility for NFTs. At heart, NFTs are a way to prove the uniqueness of particular digital items. They are mostly used for in-game items and art, but have applicability across the internet. Like with bitcoin, the idea is that anyone can use, own or trade these assets.

A jaw-dropping amount of wealth has been generated in NFT markets, which is quickly forming its own identity apart from the general cryptocurrency economy. They have permeated into mainstream culture – with celebrities and corporations alike hawking their projects – as both a tool for freedom and something of a joke.

Charitable efforts, too, have caught on. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the New Yorker magazine issued an NFT series with proceeds going to victims. Given the harrowing cause, I look at that auction as a sea change; NFTs are serious, and they are likely here to stay. New York’s toniest magazine wouldn’t besmirch the legacy of survivors with a fad.

Ulbricht’s series has similar potential by showing that this is a powerful tool even for causes you may personally object to. That’s important. For whatever else crypto may be now or may become, it’s vital to have a digital form of money you can use like cash. (Visa and Mastercard have made online shopping a breeze, but they are the ultimate gatekeepers of what you can buy.)

Auction of the Ross Ulbricht Genesis Collection, which compiles original artwork, political statements, poetry and animations produced by digital artist Levitate into a single token, began yesterday at an Art Basel event in Miami and will run until Dec. 8. The token lives on the Ethereum network, and the art can be viewed and purchased on the curated NFT marketplace SuperRare.

Ulbricht is no doubt a complicated and controversial figure. He was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. There’s a strong case that the criminal justice system has failed him – laying out an unconscionable sentence in a misguided attempt to make an example out of him – and thousands of other people. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the average sentence for a drug trafficker is 77 months. He’s not a hero, but he deserves justice.

At this point, his mother Lynn Ulbricht, and his defense organization have basically run out of legal options. In his own words, “Decades of incarceration stretch out in front of me.” He found God, found purpose and is now an advocate for the countless others done wrong by the U.S. penal system.

“As I face that future, my eventual old age and death in this cage, I find myself looking for meaning and purpose. Why am I here? What good can I do with the time I have left and from where I am? I hope that helping my fellow prisoners through my art is one way,” he wrote in a Medium post announcing the NFT launch.

The series has already drawn a tremendous amount of attention and support, though some uppity bitcoin-only crypto investors – once his most vocal and generous supporters – have criticized the project. It doesn’t matter what they think. Their worldview is already irrelevant, if they cannot see how closely most of crypto advances their cause toward credibly neutral platforms.

Current bidding stands above 250 ETH, the native currency of the Ethereum blockchain, worth about $1.1 million. That money may not free Ross, but it could go to good use. Money should be free, and (most) people, too.

UPDATE (05:20 UTC – 12/5/2021): Clarifies language around digital artist Levitate’s contribution to the project.

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