Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) is trying to clean up the messy state of crypto copyright. Last week, the company introduced “Can’t Be Evil” licenses: a series of agreements that allow creators to grant non-fungible token owners partial or near-full rights to NFT art. This combats a problem that many experts have called out — it consistently undercuts claims that NFTs allow you to “own” the work.
“Can’t Be Evil” licenses (named after a common claim about blockchain businesses) are based on the Creative Commons (CC) copyright framework. But unlike Creative Commons, which offers blanket licenses to a wide range of people, a16z licenses ensure a relationship between the buyer of an NFT and the person who created the original art associated with it.
As explained in the blog post, the licenses are intended to be a relatively simple but legally sound framework for setting the rights of NFT holders, open to modification by individual projects. Many NFT projects, including some huge brands such as Board Ape Yacht Club, are failing to do so consistently. Efforts are already underway to create a standardized NFT license, but so far, no one has seen the success Creative Commons has achieved in the non-crypto world. And a16z, heavily invested in the crypto ecosystem, has a vested interest in solving the problem.
The most extensive license is a direct copy of the CC0 agreement, which allows anyone to remix or redistribute the work. Beyond that there are five more categories. “Exclusive Commercial Rights” gives the buyer the exclusive right to use the art as they see fit. “Non-exclusive commercial rights” do something similar, but the NFT creator also has the right to use the art. There is also a version of the exclusive commercial license that can be revoked if an NFT is used for hate speech – a category that includes defamation, harassment, fraud or “indecent, cruel, illegal or obscene” uses.
Beyond that, there are also two “personal use” licenses that allow people to copy and display the art but not use it commercially. One of these is the Hate Speech Agreement; There is no other.
Licenses also take on the question of sublicensing: basically, how can an NFT holder authorize other people to use the art on something like a T-shirt or a TV show, and what happens to that deal if they sell the NFT. Under these licenses, the subcontract is immediately terminated upon sale – so new buyers cannot acquire NFT already tied to deals with other people. (On the other hand, creators who license one’s NFT need to live with some uncertainty over its future.)
The agreement also stipulates that copyrights can only be transferred if the NFT is sold legally — so stealing someone’s token doesn’t give you all the rights associated with them.
a16z frames copyright licenses as a more “trustworthy” version of NFT ownership, which is correct in some sense: it provides more clarity on the legal value of tokens rather than relying on handshake agreements and vague promises. While the slogan “don’t be evil” often implies that there is some technical limitation to prevent anyone from abusing the system, any disputes over these licenses can be resolved through an old-fashioned legal system – an idea many NFT creators are more comfortable with.