Disclaimer: This article is not investment advice, neither does it constitute tax, or legal advice. It is for informational and promotional purposes only. Do not take any action (including investments) until you have consulted with a professional about your specific situation.
I have previously written about cryptocurrencies as the basis for a self-directed retirement portfolio and using them in day-to-day business transactions. There is no doubt that crypto and blockchain technology is here to stay. As evidence of this, the U.S., the government has publicized plans for increased reporting of and tax enforcement for cryptocurrency transactions, which are currently treated like property for tax purposes, but not stocks or securities. Regulation and taxation are certainly indicators of how much the technology is being used and adopted across the entire world.
What about NFTs or non-fungible tokens? There was a lot of buzz in early 2021 about NFTs after Christie’s auctioned off a digital-only artwork for $69 million and suddenly everyone from Nike, to Hasbro, to Cervelo (a racing bike manufacturer) was selling digital-only versions of their collectibles or attaching NFTs to physical world assets. The hype has since subsided, but spend enough time online and on the various social media platforms, and NFT proponents (sellers) will be quick to offer “virtual estates,” “one-of-kind avatars,” “priceless digital art,” and various other exotic and futuristic-sounding assets. Often, you will be directed to an auction site where you will have to place bids on the NFT, sometimes even using a native cryptocurrency or token like MANA or SAND.
Suppose you got caught up one night, cashed out your 401k, and bought $100,000 worth of NFTs – a virtual castle in Decentraland, some art tapestries to decorate, and a digital collection of Luka Doncic basketball cards. The next morning at breakfast you have to explain to your spouse – NFTs? WTF did you just buy? Read on.
- NFTs as personal or business investments.
Before investing in anything, it is generally a good idea to understand exactly what you are buying. NFTs are digital representations of unique items based on the Ethereum blockchain. When you buy an NFT, you basically just bought computer code. The simplest description of blockchain is that it is a decentralized public ledger or database. Data is entered into a block – in the case of an NFT, it is specific code that signifies the “object” and its owner – and then that data becomes part of the public ledger that is replicated and stored across a vast, decentralized computer network. An NFT can have a real world counterpart, but it does not have to. As will be discussed below, an NFT can be sold together with or separate from the work’s copyright. The “non-fungible” aspect of the token means it is unique and not interchangeable with other items. Currency is fungible because a dollar bill is interchangeable with other dollar bills. On the other hand, an original Monet, your furniture, or even a pair of Nike shoes are all non-fungible because they are unique.
One big difference between NFTs and cryptocurrency is liquidity. One of the reasons why crypto is so popular right now is accessibility. Exchanges like Coinbase make it easy for anyone to buy and sell cryptocurrency right from their phone, while keeping records, and facilitating exchange of almost any cryptocurrency into fiat dollars to cash out or transfers into other cryptocurrencies. NFTs are not as liquid – to sell one you have to find a willing buyer and negotiate a price. For example, OpenSea is a large marketplace for NFTs, allowing listings at auction, fixed price, or declining price settings. But it does not allow for instant NFT transfers and the sale price of the NFT is determined by the willing buyers, which may be one or two people, as opposed to a vast number of traders buying and selling Bitcoin or Ethereum each day. Also, note that neither cryptocurrencies nor NFTs are securities that are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Investing in either requires special sophistication and due diligence.
2. What are the legal implications of this “wild west” of NFTs?
NFT investors face two areas of legal issues: copyright law and tax law. Copyright law protects the creator’s rights in computer code, as well as art, music, and other creative works. Tax law is implicated whenever you buy, sell, or invest in anything.
When buying or investing in an NFT, it is absolutely essential to understand what it is you are buying – in other word, what “bundle of rights” are you getting in exchange for your cash? In the physical world, when you buy an asset like a painting or a car, you are at least getting the physical thing. In the all-digital world of NFTs, it gets a little bit complex.
Under U.S. copyright law, the creator of art, music, movie, or other creative work owns the copyright, which attaches at the moment of creation. Transferring the physical object alone does not necessarily transfer the copyright with it – a written agreement transferring copyright is required to separate the creator from the copyright. In other words, the physical work and the copyright to that work are separate. NFTs are no different – the fact that the work is digital or consists of computer code does not matter. There is still the ownership of the original work (piece of code) and the copyright to that work. Do not assume that you are buying the copyright to the NFT when you purchase it on an online auction site unless there is a specific agreement to assign the copyright to the buyer.
If you bought an NFT without the copyright, you essentially bought a unique piece of computer code that you cannot display, duplicate, or republish without the original creator’s permission. You need the copyright to reproduce, copy, license, and otherwise do pretty much anything with the NFT. Creating derivative works based on the NFT likewise requires the copyright. In short, know what you are actually buying, as copyright gets particularly complex in the digital world. An attorney may be needed to review the agreements, especially if the transaction involves a substantial sum of money.
The IRS issued guidance as far back as 2014 that cryptocurrency is taxed like property and subject to capital gains tax. But there has been no guidance on taxing NFTs. Because NFTs and cryptocurrency rely on the same underlying blockchain technology, it is likely that NFTs will also be taxed like property and subject to capital gains. That means if you buy an NFT for U.S. Dollars, you do not pay tax on that transaction (unless a state decides to enact a sales tax on digital assets). But when you sell that NFT in exchange for cash or cryptocurrency, or trade it for another NFT, you have a taxable event. Any “gain” will be treated as reportable taxable income.
It can get especially complex if you involve cryptocurrency in the transaction. Some NFTs can only be purchased in exchange for a specific token – for example, virtual real estate in Decentraland can be purchased only for MANA tokens, which are an Ethereum token. The price of the MANA token fluctuates, just like the price of BTC or ETH or DOGE. If you pay cash for MANA, that transaction is not taxable. But then when you exchange MANA for an NFT, you are “selling” the MANA, taking a capital gain or loss, and then acquiring the NFT at the market price, which establishes the NFT’s cost basis for future transactions. When you sell the NFT for cash, you have a capital gain based on the difference between the cost basis and the sale price. But if you trade the NFT for another NFT or for Bitcoin, you again have a double tax event because you are selling “property” (subject to capital gain at the time of exchange) and acquiring “property” (subject to capital gains at the time of subsequent sale or exchange) at the same time. This is why good record keeping is an absolute must and is especially critical if you are engaging in a large number of transactions.
All of this assumes that NFTs will be taxed like cryptocurrency. But it is possible that NFTs will be taxed differently based on what the NFT represents. Will the sale of digital land be treated as a sale of physical real estate? All of a sudden state transfer taxes may come into play. Will the sale of digital art or collectibles be treated the same as physical art of collectibles and subject to special tax rates? There are many unanswered questions at this time, but as the IRS zeroes in on crypto and blockchain assets as sources of tax revenue, there will certainly be regulation and litigation on this subject.
3. Future applications for NFTs beyond collectibles and investments.
One of the most fascinating things about NFTs and blockchain tech in general is unlimited potential. The decentralization and immutability aspects are extremely potent in a number of applications. For example, in the business setting, smart contracts that automatically enforce performance and payment can eliminate many costs and inefficiencies related to international trade. Escrow accounts and associated fees may very well be a thing of the past. If performance under a contract can be reduced to code and automated, costly contract disputes can be avoided.
Blockchain can also be used in software licenses as well as licenses for other intellectual property. Concert or other event tickets are another application. Corporate governance and shareholder meetings can be accomplished through blockchain – for example, a corporation could issue a token for each share and then ask its shareholders to vote by transferring the voting tokens to a specific address. The transparency and security of the blockchain are especially valuable in this context. Some commentators have even suggested blockchain as a way to secure and democratize political elections. With a publicly-verified chain, election fraud would virtually be eliminated and election results would become indisputable.
Whatever the future holds, blockchain is exciting technology. As with all emerging technologies, the law is an a state of flux. Government regulators are playing catch up to address the application of existing law to new tech and to propagate new laws to address emerging problems. If you are investing in NFTs or using blockchain in your business, contact an experienced attorney to answer your questions and ensure that you are being proactive with your regulatory and tax obligations.
Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal, investment, or tax advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.
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