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UK Court recognizes NFTs as ‘private property’ — What now?

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At the beginning of May, the British Web3 community celebrated an important legal precedent — the High Court of Justice in London, the closest analog to the United States Supreme Court, has ruled that nonfungible tokens (NFT) represent “private property.” There is a caveat, though: In the court’s ruling, this private property status does not extend to the actual underlying content that NFT represents. Cointelegraph reached out to legal experts to understand what this decision could possibly change in the British legal landscape. 

The theft of Boss Beauties

In February 2022, Lavinia D. Osbourne, founder of Women in Blockchain Talks, wrote on Twitter that two digital works had been stolen from the Boss Beauties — a 10,000-NFT collection of empowered women that was created by “Gen Z change-makers” and featured at the New York Stock Exchange.

The tokens came with a number of utility points, such as access to exclusive events, free books, and licensing fees. Osbourne claimed that the pieces, stolen from her MetaMask wallet, later emerged on the OpenSea market. She traced down the NFTs with the help of the security and intelligence firm Mitmark.

The matter was brought to court in March, and on April 29, The Art Newspaper reported on the ruling of the United Kingdom’s High Court, in which the judges have recognized NFTs as property protected by law. In addition, the court issued an injunction to freeze the assets on the accounts of Ozone Networks (the host of OpenSea) and compelled OpenSea to disclose information about the two account holders in possession of the stolen NFTs. Shortly afterward, OpenSea halted the sale of these NFTs — Boss Beauties number 680 and 691.

As the identities of the wallet holders remain uncertain, the injunction was granted against “persons unknown.” In its comment on the decision, Stevenson Law firm called a freezing injunction “quite a draconian (i.e. old fashioned and harsh) remedy,” describing it as a “nuclear weapon” of law.

Following the court order, Osbourne victoriously proclaimed:

“Women in Blockchain Talks was founded to open up the opportunities blockchain offers to anyone, regardless of age, gender, nationality or background. This case will hopefully be instrumental in making the blockchain space a safer one, encouraging more people to interact with exciting and meaningful assets like NFTs.”

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The token and the asset

Racheal Muldoon, the counsel on the case, highlighted “the utmost significance” of the ruling, which, she said, “removes any uncertainty that NFTs are property in and of themselves, distinct from the thing they represent, under the law of England and Wales.” But it is exactly the aforementioned detail that made other experts skeptical of the groundbreaking importance of the court’s decision.

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