In his award winning novel The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick, as he is wont to do, explores questions of the true reality of things. Through his character Wyndam-Matson, an antiques dealer, he muses on the concept of historicity - the idea that a object has value because it "has history in it".

She said, 'what is "historicity"?'

'When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing .... You can't tell which is which. There's no "mystical plasmic presence", no "aura" around it.

Even if you've never stopped to reflect on it in these terms, you're no doubt aware of the importance of historicity of objects on the value we assign them. You have some sense of what a real artwork is to you, some framework in your mind for what "real" art is.

We at least have a few strongly drawn lines at the societal level about what makes an artwork fake. An artwork can be "counterfeited". Historicity is so important that we have a legal framework around asserting a false one.

Where Is That Image You Bought?

One objection to NFTs

The Copyright, The Object, And The Idea Of It

Another objection goes something like "you don't even get to own the copyright, so it's worthless". But you wouldn't get this when buying an original physical painting, either. Perhaps, lacking a physical artifact in our hands, we expect some kind of greater leverage over the work to compensate for its intagibility.

But even for traditional digital artworks, even if you specifically commissioned it, you still wouldn't own the copyright. Under US law, at least, you have to make a very specific agreement, in writing, that the commission is a "work for hire", and this may be held invalid decades later even then, depending on the nature of the work and its intended use. To complicate it further, "copyright assignment" is yet a different concept, and the rights of each party will be interpreted differently from a work-for-hire situation.

So when money changes hands, copyright doesn't. And when it's made just for you, and you pay for its creation, copyright still doesn't transfer.

But at least, when you have the physical thing, you can show everyone it's yours, right?

Well, not so fast. Without the copyright, you don't receive the right to publicly display the work. Your rights are only those that fall under "implied license" or fair use (which is something everyone has, because it's entirely situational)

Shifting Social Contracts

"I don’t believe either of those two lighters belonged to Franklin Roosevelt," the girl said.

Wyndam-Matson giggled. "That’s my point! I’d have to prove it to you with some sort of document. A paper of authenticity. And so it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself!"

"Code Is Law"

Legal implications