So, What the Hell is a NFT, Legally?

As you may already know, the Internet has been abuzz recently with “NFT“s, or Non-Fungible Tokens, an offshoot of blockchain technology, a form of distributed ledger. Basically, an NFT is an electronic token (an asset, of sorts) that been created and placed on a blockchain , and which is capable of containing certain information and passing from one buyer to the next.

Recently, artists realized that they could personally create and authenticate tokens but associating them with some of their works (think copyright), in essence creating digital tidbits capable of being bought, sold and exchanged, over time. This, couple with a limited supply, created an instant collectors’ market of NFT enthusiasts and who are now investing in upcoming artists, in a manner that is strangely reminiscent of Renaissance patrons of the arts. This allows artists to make some money and collectors to… well… collect.

The numerous stories I’ve been seeing online about this lead me to reflect as to what exactly these little electronic tidbits are, legally I mean. Are people buying art, perhaps electronic copies, or something else?

Legally, the first thing we should note is that this little trend does NOT involve people dealing or trading art (or I.P.) online. No real transfer of rights (intellectual or otherwise) gets created or transferred when buying an NFT-type electronic token, not really anyway. In effect, what will happen upon any of these purchases is that a transaction will be recorded on the blockchain at issue, showing you as the “owner” of such and such token. Period.

Does this grant you a real right of ownership to that intangible? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing for sure, what these transactions do NOT do, is transferring title to any intellectual property, such as the copyrights in this drawing or this photo, for example. So, contrary to some may be thinking reading stories about the NFT-craze, people are not buying the I.P. to copyrighted works using this scheme.

Sure, people may be buying (using the term loosely) something that was created by Mr. X, and then get bragging-rights about it, but little else. Sure the NFT may be one of the few linked to that particular piece of artwork (a music album, for example) but little else. Buying an NFT does NOT get you any real rights to the actual artwork or the I.P. to it.

The truth of it is, at law, we’re not dealing with any asset that can be readily categorized or put in a neat little box here. NFTs are rather a pure creation of the electronic age, before any rights or legislation applies to them. In effect, those who create NFTs decide what little rights (let’s call them that) they are deciding with accompany their offering of NFTs. In practice, this will usually translate to fairly little, for example a personal right (read license) to display a piece of artwork for one’s personal pleasure, etc.

So, if your reflex upon reading this is to ask what a NFT is good for, the honest answer may be: to fill an artist’s pockets. That said, don’t get me wrong, NFTs are a cool idea and I’m all for encouraging budding artists with a modicum of intermediaries who’ll profit in between; let’s just be clear as to what little legal effects are created when buying one of these tokens. At least for now anyway, we’re not dealing with anything that has inherent great value here, aside from what other collectors may be after that is.

3D Printing Plans for Guns Back Online

The American media recently reported something that continues to be a major problem: 3D printing firearms or, more specifically, what to do about the fact that anyone can now purchase a 3D printer and start producing almost anything, including guns. Though it has huge potential, this relatively new technology causes a big headache for the U.S. and no doubt numerous other jurisdictions, Canada included.

The problem is what they call ghost guns (i.e., unregistered guns without so much as a serial number) and it stems from the combination of 3D printing and the online availability of plans to print gun parts. Although 3D printers are now relatively commonplace and cheap, the plans to replicate actual gun parts are another matter.

In 2015, an American court allowed the addition of 3D printing plans (for gun parts) to the “State Department’s Munitions List,” a list of things that can only be exported (or put online) with the U.S. government’s authorization. For a short while, publishing such plans online was illegal under American law. However, the ban was relatively short-lived, as litigation by one manufacturer lead the Trump administration to repeal its ban and (again) allow the online publication of such plans.

Since then, several American states have sued the federal government in an effort to get 3D printing parts blacklisted again, and get them yanked from the Web. This has led to a recent California appeals decision which concluded that the federal government had indeed the right to withdraw such plans from the Munitions List and, thus, that there is no reason for anyone at this point in time prohibiting anyone from publishing 3D printing plans for gun parts.

As one might guess, this ruling has a lot of people worried in the U.S., a jurisdiction already awash in firearms and now facing a new source of guns, this time by individuals creating firearms from the Internet, so to speak. In 2019, one third of all guns seized in the state of California were ghost guns—the problem is very real and far from being merely theoretical. Heck, we’re even starting to see this creeping-up in Canada, as demonstrated by this Alberta news story from last September.

Faced with the resurgence of this problem, many are already calling for the U.S. to legislate specifically to address the problem, and prohibit the online publishing or sharing of ghost-gun plans.

No doubt about it: 3D printing will continue to challenge how society deals with many issues, as more and more types of items become “printable,” including guns, armour and even houses. Hey, you can’t halt progress.

Eh Dude, Your Car’s Leaking. No, Not Oil: Data

The online magazine The Intercept recently published an interesting piece entitled YOUR CAR IS SPYING ON YOU, AND A CBP CONTRACT SHOWS THE RISKS which I highly recommend. If you didn’t know it, yes, your car does generate a lot of data and even downloads some of it from mobile devices which connect to it over time. In a sense, nowadays, a car is a sort of mobile computer, shock full of data. What may not be apparent to the layperson is that a car in this day and age generates and retains A LOT of data pretty much any time a human interacts with it.

Though the article at issue focuses on the use of your vehicle’s data by law enforcement (when investigating crime), if you ask me, the true story actually goes quite beyond that, including the use of such data by private businesses.

Surprisingly, accessing the data held by a modern-day vehicle isn’t actually this complicated—you just need the know-how and the right tool. If you’re really determined to do so, plugging into a car these days and extracting troves of data is apparently pretty straightforward. For example, in case of accident or other incident with an insured vehicle, the insurer may send an investigator armed with the right tools to download the car’s data, which can then be analyzed at leisure, including to try and find out why the insured’s claim should be denied. Almost any car on the road today includes such capabilities and functionalities akin to a plane’s black box.

The article specifically discusses one particular tool called iVe, a product by a company called Berla. The iVe toolbox includes both hardware and software components, and even has its own mobile app, so as to make things easier for investigators in the field.

This particular tool may be used to siphon all data contained in a vehicle’s circuits, for example to further an investigation either by the police or an insurer. The product then facilitates identifying, accessing and analyzing various types of information found in modern-day vehicles—you’d be surprised how much there may be. The company’s website claims its product can be used to uncover things like:

  • Geolocation data, including what roads or streets the vehicle was driven on, etc.;
  • Events which the vehicle encountered and recorded through any of its sensors;
  • Media files (content) that a user downloaded or accessed using the on-board infotainment system (music, podcasts, etc.);
  • A list of the specific mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle over time, etc.

In practice, it seems one may even go so far as to obtain a copy of the list of contacts from mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle, the history of SMS and emails on those devices, the list of incoming and outgoing calls, the list of songs played through the on-board infotainment system, etc.

Incident which a car records may, of course, include accident-like events, but also things that the average driver may not realize are being recorded, including:

  • The speed at which the car is travelling at any given moment;
  • The changing of gears and the engine’s RPMs at any given moment;
  • Sudden acceleration or breaking;
  • The fact that the headlights were either turned on or off;
  • The opening or closing of doors; etc.

So, you were listing to PARANOID by Black Sabbath and texting your friend Mike while driving down this country road at 163 km/h, and then lost control? Yeah, your insurer can find out, for sure. In fact, almost any action taken by the human operator of the vehicle may be recorded (even more so if you plugged in your cellphone), something the average driver may not realize. The fact that this is generally not clearly disclosed to the public does play into the hands of insurers and law enforcement, as it does make their job somewhat easier when investigating incidents involving vehicles.

If it may provide some measure of comfort to you, iVe does not come cheap. The article to which we’re linking above mentions purchasing that tool for tens of thousands of dollars. At that price, your insurer (or its investigator) probably bought one, but not your next-door neighbour, even if he’s really into cars.

This is a good example of the behind-the-scene changes turning everyday objects, like cars, into electronic gizmos. If you thought a car was still just a car, you are very much mistaken it seems. In today’s world, accessing the data in that car can reveal a whole lot about you, your driving habits, including where you’ve taken that car, and how. And contrary to what some people may think, it does NOT require a whole team of CSI-like investigators merely to connect to your car.