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Non-Fungible Tokens and the New Patronage Economy


The non-fungible tokens for art and culture that have been making waves in recent weeks are economic peculiarities. They offer ownership – cryptographic, certain, secure ownership – but none of the exclusive rights we usually associate with ownership.

You can freely stare at my two miserable CryptoKitties as easily as I can explore Beeple’s $69 million “EVERYDAYS.”

There’s an obvious question here: What are people actually buying when they buy an NFT? The slightly counterintuitive answer suggests that what we’re seeing with NFTs is the emergence of a new type of cultural economy built around one of the oldest forms of cultural production: patronage.

Let’s begin with the theory of property rights. Economists tend to talk about property rights as not a single thing but a bundle of distinct rights governed by law, contract and even custom.

For example, you can own something without possessing it. You can possess something without having the right to transfer it. You can control something without having the right to exclude others from enjoying it.

Property rights are highly divisible. I can write a contract to transfer my property to you but at the same time specify that I retain physical access or a revenue stream. Resale […]

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