OpenSea, once the leading marketplace for non-fungible tokens, was built on a promise of perpetual royalties for digital artists. Then came upstart Blur, whose no-fee, trader-friendly platform put the focus on pricing and costs.
It only took a few months to kill the art world’s utopian dream of long-lasting income streams for content creators.
As of September 1, OpenSea, once the leading marketplace for art linked to non fungible tokens, rescinded its policy of mandatory royalty payments to NFT creators. The decision came after it lost its dominance to no-fee competitor Blur, which only appeared on the scene in October but then quickly gobbled up market share by not charging platform processing fees and became the top NFT trading site in February. Overall NFT trading volume has plummeted from about $5.36 billion in January 2022, according to The Block, to $410 million in August. OpenSea’s share of the struggling NFT market has plummeted to under 30%.
Besides the lack of platform fees, Blur does not force sellers to abide by royalty agreements, which creators who launch their works on OpenSea and a few smaller marketplaces can require on transactions in their artworks after the initial sale. OpenSea, which did police such arrangements, said it would no longer do so after August 31, and it seems unlikely that many buyers will offer the payments.
Without the guarantee of a long-term royalty stream, the appeal of creating works linked to NFTs lessens, and prices for the kind of computer-generated art often linked to the tokens are plunging anyway. So why should artists bother with NFTs?
“Making art is an act of risk-taking,” says Amy Whitaker, associate professor of art business at New York University. “It makes sense, therefore, for artists to share in the upside that they helped to create.” She termed OpenSea’s decision to abandon royalties “unfortunate.”
Digital works encoded onto blockchains rose in popularity in 2021 after the artist Beeple sold a collection of images previously published on his Instagram page for $69 million. Seeing the big bucks to be made in a seemingly simple process–just upload a digital file to an NFT marketplace, which would encode it, for a fee, onto a blockchain–hundreds, if not thousands of artists joined in. NFT aficionados, including artists and collectors, claimed that blockchain-linked art would democratize access to a murky and difficult-to-break-in market, making the opaque system of well-connected galleries and deep-pocketed buyers obsolete. The decentralized system for royalty payments, they contended, would also ensure that artists would directly participate in the appreciation of their works, typically earning a 10% cut on each subsequent sale.
Each marketplace maintained its own policy for awarding royalties to artists. Beeple for example, famously would sell his “drops” for $1 each, but as they were bid up and resold on NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he earned tens of thousands in royalties on each transaction.
In its brief life, NFT-linked art has largely been digital, often in series of similar images with various unique features that make some more collectible than others. But anything can be linked to a token–traditional art, real estate, even musical instruments–and then tracked on its associated blockchain. So, the technology could speed transactions and cut out middlemen in many industries.
The fight for royalty payments has largely played out in the court of NFT marketplaces, websites that allow creators and sellers to list their pieces in primary and secondary transactions. In order to better compete with Blur, OpenSea launched what it called its operator filter, which allowed creators of NFTs to prohibit their tokens from being sold in marketplaces that did not enforce royalties. In other words, the filter blocked OpenSea’s competitors and required collections to trade either on its own marketplace or others that did enforce royalty payments, keeping them away from Blur.
Market forces did not cooperate with OpenSea’s strategy. Free trades and optional royalty payment policies quickly drew sellers, which in turn attracted buyers. Since prices and volume were controlled by traders, seeking quick, if marginal, returns, voluntarily paying royalties to artists were easily dismissed by them.
OpenSea’s trading volume plummeted to 27% in August as Blur’s skyrocketed from a mere 5% to 60% in the same time frame, according to data from The Block. Even OpenSea Pro, OpenSea’s no-fee aggregator and direct competitor to Blur which launched in April, has been unable to take market share from Blur, accounting for only 33% of trading volume on NFT aggregators in August (63% of trades happened on Blur), according to data from Dune Analytics.
But the playing field is not level for OpenSea. With no marketplace fee, Blur is living mostly on its $11 million in venture capital funding and a hefty supply of blur tokens, reward tokens given out to its founding team and traders as rewards for using the platform. While Blur has attempted to grow its customer base with the launch of its lending products (Blend) and more uses for its token, how long its dominance will last will depend on its reliance on its token model, which could make it susceptible to regulatory action.
Ultimately, OpenSea has not only lost market share to Blur, but it is taking a smaller piece of a smaller pie. After peaking at $16 billion in January 2022, NFT trading has plummeted, with only $559 million worth exchanged in August in 3.2 million transactions, a more-than-60% volume decrease from last year, according to industry research firm DappRadar. Even then, only 15% of unique active wallets contributed to August’s NFT transactions. In July, only 4% of wallets traded the NFTs.
Few transactions and even fewer users (measured by the number of unique wallets) points to a new normal in NFT trading which is bad news for digital artists: traders rule the market, and most refuse to pay royalties.
Blur’s predecessors, aggregators like X2Y2 and LooksRare which listed NFTs available in various marketplaces, set the standard for royalty-free marketplaces geared toward traders by offering quick no-fee transactions. Others, like Magic Eden, the largest marketplace for NFTs on the Solana blockchain, and Ethereum-based OpenSea, had to respond to draw customers back to their platforms, lowering costs one way or another. Magic Eden took the first step, moving to a royalty-optional model in October as trading declined, preceding OpenSea by two weeks.
The royalty policy changes at OpenSea and other marketplaces should send a loud wake up call to Bored Ape Yacht Club maker Yuga Labs. Since it debuted in April 2021, Yuga has received $58 million in royalties from the resales of its Bored Ape collection. Its Mutant Ape Yacht Club and “Otherdeed” collection brought in nearly $100 million more. Chiru Labs, which designed the anime-inspired Azuki collection, and Doodles, purveyor of pastel-forward illustrations are also likely to take big revenue hits.
TOP 10 ROYALTY GENERATING NFT COLLECTIONS
Through August 2023, profile picture collections have received the most in total royalties since launch, garnering millions in fees from secondary trading. But when it comes to effective royalty rates, metaverse and gaming NFTs, with rates of 8% to 9%, are the winners.
Even prior to OpenSea scrapping royalty payments, 10% royalties were more of a goal than a reality. According to Nansen, the average royalty for the highest earning collections was between 2% and 4%. Top-performing gaming collectibles were earning 5% to 10%.
Though they stand to have the most dollars to lose, some big creators are insulated by the brand recognition they’ve garnered, including shows at traditional museums, and can still claim the big bucks on primary sales. Chiru Labs, for example, raised $38 million ahead of its much-anticipated “Elementals,” although investors ultimately thought that collection of characters with almost identical designs was a flop.
The most dire consequences of the loss of royalties are likely to fall on the smaller creators whose monthly payments have been in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars but who have included the income in their financial planning, according to Calderon.
At the $6.7-million collection Rektguy, the loss of royalties is having tangible results, says co-founder Ovie Faruq. “We’ve used royalties to pay a moderator, to put-on real-life events, to build different competitions and build our website and community,” he says. “So, when you strip that out, it changes the business model.”
Combined with the evaporating royalties, NFT participants face new U.S. regulatory issues. The Securities and Exchange Commission last month required Los Angeles-based Impact Theory, a digital media studio which raised $30 million from its NFT sales since 2021, to revise the smart contract underlying its Founders Keys NFTs to eliminate any royalty payment the company may receive from future secondary market transactions. The SEC alleges the company sold unregistered crypto securities through its sale. Because Impact collects and profits from the royalties (set at 10%), rather than the digital artist, the SEC contends, its NFTs are securities. This week, the SEC also fined the creators of the Stoner Cats collection $1 million over the sale of unregistered securities.
Impact Theory’s NFTs offered a number of exclusive opportunities to holders, including discounts and early access to videos and gaming content. To settle charges that it was selling unregistered securities–the first SEC enforcement action against an NFT issuer–Impact Theory also agreed to destroy its remaining supply of the tokens and pay a $6 million fine.
If the SEC is looking at royalty payments as a potential criterion for treating the tokens like securities, NFT studios, collectors and even the marketplaces they’re traded on could be susceptible to the same kinds of enforcement actions the agency has been taking against cryptocurrency companies. The way the Impact Theory NFTs were structured may have made them especially susceptible.
“There’s a pretty good argument for the artists receiving royalties downstream, based on certain case law,” says James Walker, co-lead of Perkins and Coie’s fintech enforcement and compliance team referring to the way the entertainment industry compensates musicians, actors and screenwriters, for example. “But there’s a stronger argument [that NFTs are securities] when you have a company [like Impact Theory] that isn’t involved in the creation that is getting royalties downstream from certain NFTs issued.”