NFTs and Birkin Bags You Kind of Just Look At (Virtually)

By Alan Behr, Phillips Nizer Partner

In their short history of being the greatest advance in art since cave painting, NFTs have raised new questions of esthetics (which sometimes interest lawyers), new questions about the art market (which interests them now and then) as well as new questions of law (which interest them compulsively). As a member of the Copyright Society, the International Trademarks Association and the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, I periodically wade across all those streams. I will not, in my capacity as an art critic, go into my analysis of the artistic merit of the images associated with the NFTs that have become prominent so far—other than to share that I have no intention of buying any of them. As a lawyer, what has my interest now are new legal issues arising from the unique technical aspects of NFTs.

As is often reported, NFTs are part of the blockchain—which, like most lawyers, I understand somewhat less than I do the non-volatile memory of a BIOS chip, which I understand not at all. More particularly, the technology that powers NFTs was created as an add-on to the Ethereum cryptocurrency blockchain. A common misconception is that NFT technology is a new medium—as oil on canvas and fingerpaint on construction paper are artistic media. An NFT is actually an electronic certificate of ownership of, typically, a work of digital art that is available in any common format, such as a JPG, TIFF, or MP4. The certificate has been likened to a property deed: The NFT is not property as in the house you own but recognition of holding title to the house found in the document that certifies that you are the one and only owner. More narrowly for art, it is rather like a certificate of authenticity issued by the artist when selling physical art: you pass it along with the art to verify that the art is neither a forgery nor a duplicate.

The technical problem the NFT technology surmounts is that its certification function gives the buyer a mechanism to resolve a core problem plaguing digital art: as with just about any digital file, digital art can be copied with one hundred percent fidelity. A copy of an oil painting is a just copy, not the original; a sculpture chiseled to look like another is not the same sculpture but a variation of it, and so on. To build verifiable uniqueness and thereby identify the “original” of a digital work, something like the NFT had to come along. Anyone can still make a perfect copy of the underlying image for little or no cost, but the art market will see the NFT as the sole, true original.

And so, all manner of NFTs are being attempted as entrepreneurs and even a few artists properly definable as such try to make large sums of money from selling them. The art market being of far greater interest to the American public these days than art itself, you can see the reason for the buzz: contemporary art (the criticism of which is my core mission as an art critic) is an esthetic muddle, but nearly everyone loves to know when and how big money is made.

With that as a predicate, it had to happen that the NFT market would slide willingly into the market for fashion, and as every commercial lawyer knows, when new money enters an old market, litigation will follow. A lawsuit involving fashion and NFTs that is now in its early stages may help clarify what the law will consider an NFT to be. The case, Hermès v. Mason Rothschild, 22 cv 983 (S.D.N.Y.), was recently filed by Hermès International and an affiliate to halt the marketing and sale of NFTs of images of the brand’s signature Birkin handbag. Each of the defendant’s NFT images is unique but all of them depict bags recognizably in the shape of Birkins clad in virtual fur. To stop their sale, Hermès, which owns United States trademark registrations for both the word mark BIRKIN and the famous shape of the bag (that is, its trade dress), has sued for trademark infringement, trademark dilution and associated wrongs.

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss, claiming to be an artist whose “MetaBirkins” “comment on the fashion industry’s animal cruelty and the movement to find leather alternatives.” When you look at the marketing the defendant has done for his creations, that response appears cheeky rather than contemplative—but because anything can be art these days, it is hard to predict how that might resonate with the court.

The defendant’s motion says, as such motions must, that there is nothing to litigate because the facts as pleaded, even if taken as true, do not support a finding in favor of the plaintiffs. To my reading, however, the memorandum in support of the motion appears to raise more triable facts than the complaint itself, making me wonder what the defendant’s strategy might be at this point. The defendant’s legal argument is further complicated by an overreliance on an important case regarding the right of publicity, Rogers v. Grimaldi, 695 F. Supp. 112 (S.D.N.Y. 1988). That case concerned Ginger Rogers, who was a real actress and dancer, not an imaginary handbag that will not hold your hairbrush or car keys. What is possibly more interesting here is the defendant’s statement about what an NFT actually does from a technical point of view:

Nor does the fact that [defendant] is using a new technological mechanism to authenticate his art change the fact that he’s selling art. An NFT is merely code that points to a digital asset…. [T]he NFT is not the digital artwork; it is code that points to a place where the associated digital image can be found, and that authenticates the image.

An important implication of that argument would be that an NFT is not a copy as that term is understood under United States copyright law. There is indeed a line of cases in which courts tried to unravel whether a type of digital technology created an infringing copy of a work protected by copyright. A relatively early such case was Micro Star v.FormGen 154 F.3d 1107 (9th Cir. 1998), for which I served as head of the legal department for the parent company of the party made the defendant in a complaint for declaratory judgement. The plaintiff, Micro Star, argued that its disc incorporating user-made unique levels (i.e., battles) for play with the videogame DukeNukem 3D and sold in violation of the license, did not actually copy the artwork of the game. The argument was that the code in the level discs only contained digital instructions (in what were known as MAP files) for what pieces from the game’s art library were to be accessed to create the combat challenge played by a user. That argument did not prevail, and the disc was found to be infringing. Similar questions of whether actual, fixed expression had been copied and, if so, if the result was infringing, were central in a later Supreme Court copyright case. In American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., 573 U.S. 431 (2014), the Supreme Court found that the use of individual, miniature antennas, each dedicated to a single program seen by a single subscriber (as opposed, for example, to a single large server streaming to many) did not overcome the fact that that a broadcast service was illegally performing “publicly” the works held under copyright by others. Although the defendant in Hermès may have raised the issue of the electronic function of NFTs in support of its trademark defense, it is worth considering where that position might lead should copyright become a core issue in the next NFT case.

When that technical issue is tucked for now into its appropriate conceptual corner, the trademark question in the Hermès case remains traditional whether the marketplace would be confused into believing that the NFT of a MetaBirkin originated with Hermès or if the presence on the market of the NFT or the underlying image would dilute the value of the BIRKIN word mark and Birkin handbag trade dress. Looking at it strictly from that point of view, it appears that the plaintiffs have made a compelling case in their complaint.

It is hard to conceive what might happen if the court allows the defendant to keep selling his virtual Birkins (or MetaBirkins, if that is really a distinction). Luxury brands have probably never played such a starring role in popular culture as they do today. They can only do so through the enjoyment of a legal monopoly over their brands—including the trademarks that identify them and the stories that they tell. At The RealReal store in downtown Manhattan, for instance, aspiring luxury consumers troll for secondhand, affordable examples of major luxury products. In the bathrooms, recorded voices coach enthroned shoppers on the correct pronunciation of names of major luxury brands. Through that kind of retailing, social media and all the other instruments of pop culture, luxury has morphed from a reference point for rarified prosperity to a locus of collective aspiration. To allow NFTs to pop up randomly with cagey digital versions of the products of those brands would appear to allow others to control, in part, the messaging of those brands. That would surely cause consumers to confuse the source of the brand’s products with the sources of those NFTs.

Just asking intuitively: if you saw an NFT of a Birkin bag, even a fuzzy one, would you not assume that Hermès was involved? If you did not, the only interest you might have in the image certified by the NFT would have to be for its esthetic value—that is, as proper art. If the artist really had confidence that he could make the artistic power of furry handbags into the driving force behind the commercialization of his vision, why would he bother snipping recognition (and profits) from a famous luxury brand? Would not any handbag, real or fictional, not do quite as well? The point should therefore not be whether MetaBirkins are represent real purses or not or whether they have artistic value or not; the point should be whether the market for the source of all this—real Birkin handbags—would be damaged.