Now that the frothiness seems to be coming out of the art-collectibles-gaming corner of the crypto space, it's probably a good time for the non-fungible token (NFT) industry to focus on fixing some of its core issues.
We previously reported on how the underlying content in NFTs (the image or the music or the video of which a token ostensibly proves ownership) isn't always stored reliably. "I always tell people there are two major points when launching a NFT project: own your smart contract and know where your NFT metadata lives. If any one of these platforms die, you don't want your token to disappear," Carolin Wend, chief operating officer at Mintbase, told CoinDesk by email.
Conscientiousness about the persistence of NFT content has grown but there's still not a clear best practice in the industry. There's no easy way for a buyer to verify his or her NFT content will persist into the future, and there should be.
In the analog commercial space there's a long history of self-regulating industries that help users feel good about the things they buy. For example, an Underwriters Laboratories seal on an electronic product shows it has been checked against reasonable danger of shock and fire. Various consumables opt to be certified as Fair Trade or Organic.
Digital art and collectibles need some sort of Authentic & Persistent Data Certification. A seal that could be posted on NFT marketplaces to show that a given NFT has stored its data in a way that will persist predictably for some reasonable length of time, or that gives the user agency in further ensuring the underlying data will continue to exist.
There are two issues here: the existence of the data and verifying its authenticity.
As Kyle Tut, CEO of Pinata, a firm working on NFT storage, put it in an email, "The value of an NFT doesn't start with persistence, it starts with authenticity. A counterfeit Nike sneaker can persist for just as long as an authentic Nike sneaker can.
Why this matters
If you already understand this issue, you can skip this section.
Imagine that I make some great drawing and I sell an NFT of a PNG file that shows the work on the OpenSea marketplace. Now, imagine the place where that image lived was on the CoinDesk website, such as at coindesk.com/bradysgreatdrawing.jpg.
Like any NFT, mine would have a TOKENURI field, but if the only documentation I left of my brilliant creation was that web address, my buyer might be in trouble.
If he loved it so much that he downloaded the file to his computer, would his (very wise) investment be safe?
Imagine our IT team finds that drawing and thinks: "Why the heck is Brady storing his drawings on our servers?" And they delete my masterpiece! Rude, obviously, but not unreasonable.
The downloaded copy isn't that helpful. All you've got is a web address, so how could you prove to the teeming masses of Brady Dale art fans who want to buy it later that your downloaded file was that drawing on your computer? The only proof you have is a URL that doesn't work anymore.
So it's not enough to store a copy. You need to prove the copy is authentic.
Fortunately, cryptography provides a solution for this. It just needs to be used. The solution is called hashing.
How the standard would work
It's fairly easy to take a piece of data and run a cryptographic hash on it that spits out a string that will always correspond to just that one chunk of data. So if someone makes a copy of any file and doesn't change it in any way, each copy will spit out that same hash when checked with the same hashing function.
So all someone needs to do is put that hash into the NFT metadata and you can forever prove that copies of a file are authentic. You've got a way to say, This is mine.
Or maybe not forever? Tut wrote, "We think creators and collectors should have the opportunity to define how long an NFT should persist. NFT persistence isn't just zero or one. It can also be everything in between." Just like copyright isn’t forever (though Disney has certainly tried to make it so).
On the Clubhouse audio chat app Thursday, participants from organizations like the NFT marketplace Rarible, decentralized storage startup Filecoin, digital art company Asynchronous Art, the decentralized web services provider Fleek and others discussed this issue of persistence and how the industry could collaborate to solve it.
"The call was pretty productive," said Harrison Hines, the founder of Fleek, told CoinDesk. He felt folks were coming to consensus that the Interplanetary File System (IPFS) would be a good way to standardize authenticating content with its hashing functionality, while still allowing flexibility around storage.
He also said the Clubhouse participants discussed a "Data DAO" model to check that NFTs are stored on one or more trustless storage networks. This could be a good way to run some kind of "Certified Authentic & Persistent" seal.
Wend said Mintbase has been working to inspire confidence by showing an Arweave logo on all its NFTs. Arweave endows files to be stored forever, and the logos link to a copy of the file on that permanent storage system.
There's a website that lets users check NFTs to see if they are safely stored, but it's still new and developing. That said, its existence helps push for some kind of unified thinking here.
Now that the pressure is off to mint every possible NFT imaginable in hopes of a giant payday, the industry has an opportunity to come to consensus about what boxes an NFT needs to check in order for trustless authentication of digital property to be trustworthy over time.
Authentic & Persistent Data Certification is a natural solution that would be simple enough to implement online, and it would benefit the entire space.
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