20 January 2022

He who controls the Spice controls the universe. But not the Copyright.

Submitted by Mark Beckman
He who controls the Spice controls the universe. But not the Copyright.

NFT group spends a whopping R47-million on a rare copy of ‘Dune’, falsely believing it gives them copyright.

A conglomerate of crypto investors recently announced that they had made history by purchasing a rare copy of the book Dune by the science fiction writer Frank Herbert. The ‘victors’ won an auction and paid a staggering €2.66 million (R47 million).

The group, named Spice DAO in reference to a central theme in the book, immediately announced on Twitter that they would; “1. Make the book public (to the extent permitted by law); 2. Produce an original animated limited series inspired by the book and sell it to a streaming service; and 3. Support derivative projects from the community." Of course, to do this, one would need to own the copyright and that was the assumption by the Spice DAO gang. “Unfortunately, purchasing a rare collectible version of the book for millions of Rands gives them as much right to the story’s copyright as I would have by buying a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from my local bookshop,” says Intellectual Property Attorney at Barnard Incorporated, Stefaans Gerber. “Owning a physical copy of a book does not give you the legal right to adapt and capitalise on the intellectual property. In the case of Dune, the current copyright holders are The Herbert Limited Partnership.”

Dune is an award-winning 1965 science fiction novel by the American author Frank Herbert, originally published as two separate serials in Analog magazine. Set in the distant future, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose family accepts the stewardship of the planet Arrakis. While the planet is an inhospitable and sparsely populated desert wasteland, it is the only source of melange, or "spice", a drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities.

The attempted copyright coup was hatched in the Spice DAO’s NFT forum where it was suggested that they purchase a culturally significant work, then "issue a collection of NFTs that are technically innovative and culturally disruptive". In other words, after buying a book, they’d convert it into JPG images, then burning the book - meaning that the "only copies" remaining would be the JPGs. The belief was that this act would enhance the value of the NFT chain as the only legal copy of the book and would be an "incredible marketing stunt."

“This misunderstanding by what appears to be an innovative movement with great intentions, only shows that there is a great deal of education to be done in the area of NFTs and intellectual property,” says Gerber. “The concept and ground-breaking application that NFTs have, is revolutionising the monetisation of creative works, but the NFT idea that you’ve bought a scarce and limited copy of a thing, and that you now 'own' that thing and all underlying intellectual property which vests therein, is opposed to the commonly understood principles behind international copyright and trademark laws.” NFTs, or non-fungible tokens are non-interchangeable units of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger. NFTs are most commonly associated with reproducible digital files such as photos, videos, and audio.

The crypto enthusiasts who put their money into the Space DAO organisation own just a single copy of the book, with very limited ability to monetise it as intended.

Copyright is a set of exclusive legal rights given to the author or creator of an original work – that includes the right to copy, distribute, adapt, perform and display the work in public. The work itself does not necessarily have to be unique. The owner of the copyright to the material has the right, amongst others, to copy, adapt, print, perform and distribute their work. Anyone else who wants to reuse the work in this way has to obtain permission from the owner. In South Africa the term of copyright in a literary or artistic work is 50 years from the death of the author end of the year in which the author dies or is presumed to have died.  Only once the copyright expires does the work fall into the public domain.

As the copyright holder of your work, you may:

  • Reproduce the copyrighted work in copies;
  • Create adaptations of the work which includes, in the context of literary works, in the case of a non-dramatic work, a version of the work in which it is converted into a dramatic work;
  • Make derivative works based on your original work;
  • Distribute copies to the public by sale, rental, lease, or lending;
  • Perform the copyrighted work publicly; and
  • Display the copyrighted work publicly.

If you don’t want to employ the stringent restrictions that a full copyright implies, you can choose to license it as a Creative Commons work.