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Can Your Old Photo Become an NFT? Should It?

At the recent Ohio Civil War Show, an attendee asked my opinion about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and Civil War photographs. This query has come up before, sometimes jokingly, but in recent months with enough serious interest to prompt me to dedicate this space to the subject.

NFTs are unique digital illustrations, photos, animations, audio or videos sold to collectors. Purchasers receive essentially a certificate of ownership. They do not own copyrights or intellectual property rights. NFTs have been controversial since entering the mainstream in 2017, dogged by detractors who question what investors are actually buying. Some critics invoked the Great Fools Theory and the infamous tulip mania that gripped the 17th century Dutch Republic. The NFT market has recently plummeted. As of this writing, some sources have declared the bubble burst and NFTs dead. Hopeful creators and investors dismiss the decline as growing pains of a fledgling industry.

Undeterred, I created my own NFTs to understand them. Here’s what I learned.

You can legally use images in your collection. Though not an attorney, my research suggests you can as long as you own the original 19th century albumen print or hard plate photograph. There are no enforceable copyrights. The risk of a legal challenge from descendants of the individual in the photo is tiny: They would face an enormous burden of proof and expensive legal bills to claim family ownership over an image in your collection.

Creating and selling your first NFT is a multi-step process, especially if you do not already own cryptocurrency. There are many guides online; I relied on The Motley Fool. The process involves (1) opening a cryptocurrency account (I invested $150 in Ethereum), (2) selecting a digital wallet provider to hold the crypto, (3) setting up a marketplace (I chose OpenSea), (4) linking my wallet to the marketplace, (5) uploading my NFTs (I created my own using digitized cartes de visite in my collection) with titles and descriptions, and then, finally, (6) setting a price and method of purchase (I chose a 7-day auction with a reserve and had no bids). Here’s the page.

NFT marketplaces have pros and cons. On the plus side, they are home to vibrant communities of creators. Once you’ve created your first NFT, adding more is easy. Selling them can expose new audiences to history. Minuses are that the longevity of NFTs is an open question. Are they a fad or permanent feature? Will they survive the current crash and cryptocurrency instability? Over time, the answers to these questions will be revealed. Until then my relatively small investment of dollars and time will hang in the balance.

Ronald S. Coddington
Editor & Publisher

Note: The information provided here is not an endorsement of NFTs, associated marketplaces and technology, or cryptocurrency. It is intended as a public service to the collecting community.

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