Rupert Murdoch’s publishing arm is considering making a move into the frothy market of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, by turning the Times and the Sun’s extensive archive of photos, cartoons and classic front pages into unique digital versions.
News UK is in the early stages of evaluating whether the crown jewels among its tens of thousands of physical images, such as exclusive pictures of the Queen, to front pages such as “It’s The Sun Wot Won it!”, to Freddie Starr Ate My Hamstercould be given a lucrative second life as exclusive digital collectibles the public could buy and trade.
Its interest comes as the market for the controversial trading of NFTs, which is viewed by skeptics as a speculative bubble akin to the cryptocurrency craze, grew to an estimated $22bn (£16bn) last year.
The possible entry into the world of NFTs, a market that has been questioned by News UK’s own titles, is understood to be driven from the top, with the chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, and the chief operating officer, David Dinsmore, said to be involved.
The Times unexpectedly played an important role in the rise of crypto assets. Satoshi Nakamoto, the presumed pseudonym for the person or persons who created bitcoin, embedded and quoted the 3 January 2009 front page, which led with “Chancellor on Brink of Second Bailout of Banks”, in the first ever bitcoin block chain transaction in what is now known as the Genesis Block.
The move, a nod to Nakamoto’s hope that cryptocurrencies may change the global financial system for the better, led to the edition being referred to as “the most rare, and most valuable crypto-collectible in existence” – in the newspaper industry, at least.
One of the areas News UK is understood to be looking at is how to leverage the crypto-fame and financial potential of the 3 January 2009 edition of the Times.
However, the question of value is a thorny one. While an owner of an NFT has a digital “token” proving they own the “original” work – which could result in multimillion pound auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s – it may be difficult to recreate a unique element to a picture or front page that people would want to pay for when the image is readily available on the internet.
News UK, which declined to comment on its crypto project, is understood to also want to keep the rights to continue to use the originals in its publications, a common phenomenon among creators of NFTs.
Last month, Julian Lennon sold several items of Beatles memorabilia as NFTs, including items of clothing worn by his father, John, as well as Paul McCartney’s handwritten notes for the song Hey Jude, but kept the physical items.
The financial attraction is clear: creations such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club’s 10,000 NFTswhich now trade for almost $300,000 and have been sold to celebrities including Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon, have brought in more than $1bn in sales since launching last April.
But like cryptocurrencies, the NDT market is attractive increasing scrutiny from regulators because of concerns it is a bubble that could cost inexperienced investors their savings.
In December, the UK advertising watchdog banned a promotion of digital “fan tokens” by Arsenal football club, saying it was exploiting supporters’ “inexperience or credulity, trivialising investment in crypto assets, misleading consumers over the risk of investment and not making it clear the ‘token’ was a crypto asset”.
This week, HM Revenue and Customs announced it had seized three NFTs as part of an investigation into a suspected VAT fraud scheme involving 250 fake companies.
Warnings about crypto assets, which are unregulated in the UK, have come from institutions including the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority, which last month was given powers by the Treasury to ensure cryptocurrency ads adhered to the same rules as other financial marketing.
There have also been calls for Transport for London, which runs the UK capital’s bus, underground and train network, to ban the rapidly proliferating cryptocurrency ads that often attempt to lure naive investors with the promise of big returns.