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This project could change how we think about digital art

Someone owns this picture.

Image: Cryptopunk

No, not the copyright to the picture. They own the picture itself. You can, of course, download a version, but that’s just a copy. Someone owns the original. It is art, and it has an owner.

What does that mean in the digital age? That’s what the guys at Larva Labs want to find out.

The image above is just one of 10,000 pieces of art released last week as part of an experiment called CryptoPunks. What makes this project unique is that each image is tied to a piece of computer code on the blockchain-based Ethereum platform. That means the owner of each piece of art is clearand that ownership can be transferred.

The result is a finite set of artistic expressions that can be bought and sold like any other kind of art. Unlike most art, however, there’s nothing to hang on a wall or show off in a building lobby. Will people have any interest in paying for the equivalent of a digital certificate of authenticity? We’ll find out.

“The whole thing is pretty weird, and that’s kind of why we did this,” said Matt Hall, who, along with John Watkinson, made CryptoPunks out of their mobile-focused company Larva Labs. “There’s like a weird intersection here between these virtual, digital things and an artificial rarity, but a rarity that is real and valuable in some sense.”

To test this out, Hall and Watkinson released all their art for free. All you have to do is have an Ethereum wallet (and about $0.11 worth of the cryptocurrency ether to cover transaction fees) and you can just claim whichever ones are still available (as of Thursday, there’s plenty).

Their experiment comes at an interesting time for blockchain, which is a technology that uses computers to create a decentralized and public ledger that can then be used to create extremely secure and permanent transactions and contracts.

Blockchain is typically associated with the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, but Ethereum is where the action is. The Ethereum platform lets people build just about anything they want on the blockchain, opening up a whole world of possibilities for programs that can be run securely and publiclysuch as CryptoPunks.

Startups are even raising money through Ethereumwith one company recently raising $150 million from anonymous investors.

One of the main features of Ethereum is smart contracts that ensure all parties play by the rules. That means you can do things like exchange online goods without worrying (as much) about getting ripped off.

There are already some early signs that the allure of collectibles can work in a digital environment. The first blockchain-based collector effort formed around the alt-right Pepe meme and remains relatively popular. Topps doesn’t use blockchain, but does offer the digital equivalent of the physical trading cards on which it built its brand. Its Star Wars: Card Trader game has created a reasonably strong following complete with a secondary market with thousands of listings on eBay. One listing is asking $882 for what its owner claims is a one-of-a-kind card. There’s also sports versions of the digital collecting app.

There’s plenty other examples of digital goods that have been bought and sold with real money, particularly in games with a social element. Various tech companies have also experimented with charging for digital stickers, which are used in some apps as a way to tip other people.

CryptoPunks aren’t quite like any of those things. They don’t do anything. They can’t be redeemed for anything. They’re not really based off any pre-existing franchise. You can show off your CyrptoPunks via account pages, but that’s about it.

Hall said that the project was conceived to test out some of the dynamics of scarcity and demand. There are various types of CryptoPunks, which were generated algorithmically from a set of templates. Each one is different, but some types are more rare than others. The rarest typesaliens and apeswere cleaned out first.

Like any art, there’s a collectible nature to CryptoPunks. And like any online collectible, there’s an inevitable comparison to Pokmon, as pointed out by Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover.

Certainly that was part of the inspiration, but Hall said they wanted to created something that was truly scarce and not subject to the whims of even its creators. Once the CryptoPunks project went live, he couldn’t add to the existing set even if he wanted to. The nature of the blockchain system means that once the project went live, it became unalterable by anyone.

“There’s Pokmon and these kinds of things, but it’s a weird world where everything is replicable,” Hall said.

The end result is a project that uses creative expressions and technology to test our notions of art and value in the digital world. It’s the kind of thing that Andy Warhol might have loveda mass-produced pop-art effort that, at its core, is about the interplay between creativity and markets.

Are CryptoPunks worth anything? Well, yes. The first CryptoPunks were sold in recent days: a zombie for $1 and a particularly weird punk for $34, according to Hall.

It’s not a vibrant market just yet, but the possibility is there. It’s not inconceivable to envision a future in which CrytoPunks or some other blockchain-tied series of art does become valuable. As more of life moves online, status symbols are bound to follow.

Someday, owning a CryptoPunk might signify just how early of an adopter you were into the world of Ethereum and its thriving digital art scene. Or, they could just be a bunch of images.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/06/16/cryptopunks-ethereum-art-collectibles/

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