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Free + Valuable: Why I'm Excited About Zora Protocol Rewards

A big-picture take on creative labor, value, and reciprocity

About six weeks ago, Zora announced the most groundbreaking positive-sum arts funding mechanism I’ve seen in web3: Protocol Rewards.

Remarkably, it even delivers ETH rewards for free creative work.

The Protocol Rewards mechanism collects a small fee in ETH from collectors when they mint collectibles as NFTs. Artists, writers, and other creators can mint their work on the Zora chain by paying gas fees only. The Zora smart contract then directs portions of the collector fees to the creators, referrers, curators, and first minter, regardless of where the mint occurs.

This means:

  • An artist using Zora Mints can choose not to price their art (i.e., release open editions with a price of 0 ETH), and yet

  • The work can accrue value in ETH directly to the creator in perpetuity, for as long as the underlying blockchain operates and people continue to mint.

I'm still floored every time I read that. Obsessed, even. Cryptomedia can be both free and financially valuable to the artists and creators? Directly? In perpetuity?

Indeed, that's Zora's mission: " make creating on the internet free and valuable."

To clarify: artists who set prices for their work also benefit from Protocol Rewards, and since all blockchain interactions involve network fees, even 0 ETH open editions are not strictly free for any users. (For more info, read the docs and support page).

However, it still makes sense to think of Zora Mints as "free" in two ways.

First, Protocol Rewards gives artists a new way to earn ETH rewards over time as their "free" (0 ETH) hidden gems get discovered and minted. This opens never-before-seen possibilities, especially for underrated and emerging niche artists.

Second, Protocol Rewards is the first reliable web3-native positive-sum counterweight to the extractive economic forces that financialize "free" art to the detriment of artists. The key to this value unlock is reciprocity: rewarding "free" creative labor that has long been undervalued.

A writer's take: "It’s been beyond my imagination. A free piece of art has resulted in the largest sale, by many multiples, I’ve had in my three years here. There’s something about free and Zora has found a way to leverage that."

A musician's take: "...using Zora Network as a musician right now just gave me so much hope and happiness."

An analyst's take: "As others are moving away from creator royalties, Zora has doubled down on its position with 'Protocol Rewards.' Creators now earn a revenue share on free mints, regardless of where the mint occurs."

Let's unpack some context and take a closer look at value flows in the arts.

When Art is "Free," Who Pays?

To fully appreciate the brilliance of Protocol Rewards as an unlock for "free" value flows, it's helpful to compare extractive economic forces with reciprocity norms in arts networks.

Artists' time, labor, and creative gifts are frequently taken for granted or treated as an afterthought — i.e., implicitly assumed to be available "for free." Accounting for the true costs of "labors of love" would involve a reckoning with this tyranny of valuelessness.

Meanwhile, powerful entities use extractive means such as control over supply chain chokepoints to accumulate much of the value artists create. When these systemic extractive forces (e.g., "...the big brands that think exposure is cash") co-opt the vast majority of the value generated by labors of love in arts networks, artists pay out of pocket for these egregious failures of reciprocity.

In healthy arts networks, normative patterns of value flow follow positive-sum logic, in which "free" creative work includes obligations of reciprocity to the commons. Extractive forces prey on these norms of gift economics by capturing this "free" value and financializing it in zero-sum ways that shift risks and costs onto artists.

As Zora CEO Jacob Horne explains:

"...platforms are monetizing your content by selling off the ad space, exchanging with advertisers and keeping all of that value for themselves. If you’re a large creator, you might be lucky enough to get a percentage of this value from your own content. The reason these companies are worth billions of dollars is in part because they are able to monetize your content that you give them for free.

By minting your content on a platform like Ethereum—a blockchain that is entirely public and decentralized—you now have a way to own your content that is entirely native to the internet."

Positive-sum mechanisms such as Zora Protocol Rewards can reduce dependence on these extractive entities by facilitating the return of long-extracted value directly to artists.

While the amounts involved may seem negligible at first, it's worth noting that Zora has already built a cash cow in a bear market. Consider the possibilities of Protocol Rewards in the context of composability, network effects, universal comment layers, and compounding over time. With expansive fees, Zora is beginning to reclaim artist-generated value from being structurally co-opted and accumulated by extractive forces.

Herein lies a latent superpower. Thanks to Zora, web3 now holds a new key to unlock it. To use it wisely, web3 will have to be intentional about incentive alignment that revalues artists on their own terms as artists, not only as content creators.

The Arts Generate Abundant Value

Lewis Hyde writes in Created Commons:

"The arts regularly generate their own currents of wealth, and rather than treating them as charity cases, or as loss leaders for...“true” commerce, there ought to be ways to channel that wealth back to freshen its source. If there is a commons of creativity there ought to be a way to manage it so that it perpetuates itself."

The arts regularly generate their own currents of wealth. That bears repeating, since few of us are encouraged to perceive the arts from that perspective.

What if more web3 projects took a page from Zora's playbook and developed positive-sum mechanisms that reward creative labor as wealth generation?

What if web3 channeled more of that generative wealth back to freshen its source, and developed ways to manage it so that it perpetuates itself through reciprocity?

Reciprocity in arts networks is fundamentally relational. As an example, here are some observations on value co-creation as seen through the lens of my creative process as a music journalist.

  • Musicians create music and release it.

  • I listen, enjoy the music, deepen my music appreciation skills, and further develop my tastes.

  • Over time, I explore the context and history surrounding the music. I listen to similar artists, follow labels, talk to other fans, and read liner notes and interviews.

  • Music inspires my own creativity. I write about my favorite albums, curate playlists, interview musicians, create album promo blurbs, and help build context by contributing my own input into the mix.

  • If my work reaches the musicians, it lets them know: "I heard you. I appreciate you. Your work matters."

  • If my work reaches readers who trust my voice as a writer, they may listen and recommend the music to others.

  • Ideally, the work I release (and the response to it) also inspires other musicians to make great music, and other writers to write about music.

  • I get more great music!

  • So does the community!

  • Which inspires more writing.

That's reciprocity in action. I pay it forward by using my writing skills, time, attention, musical tastes, and creative labor to add value back into the arts networks that originally spawned my own creativity. When that value is received in kind by others in the network, the conversation continues, and more value can emerge through scenius — the collective form of genius.

I think of scenius as a self-organizing form of swarm intelligence that perpetuates itself by sending tendrils out to seed and nourish further creativity. Each artist contributes something unique to the mix, and in doing so, emboldens other artists to pursue their own creative work.

In a digital media climate inundated with quickly buried "content," art labor that's met with sufficient collective attention, care, and real reciprocity can generate positive-sum value.

Attention, after all, is itself an act of creation. Zorbs, for example, serve as attractors for generative value creation through collective attention.

Zora Protocol Rewards gives artists who release "free" (i.e., gifted) work an option to earn from it directly, without prices or paywalls. In reciprocity-driven contexts, then, artists can choose to pay it forward by releasing creative work as 0 ETH Zora Mints without leaving their own pockets empty.

Imagine A Restorative Onchain Creative Commons

Imagine a future in which Zora Protocol Rewards inspires many other positive-sum mechanisms and reciprocity norms that recognize creative labor as wealth generation.

Imagine these mechanisms as force multipliers for collective intelligence in diverse web3 ecosystems.

Imagine a restorative onchain creative commons in which these ecosystems become maximally successful at mitigating the effects of extractive forces on artists' livelihoods over the long term.

In Zora's words (bold emphasis mine):

"Minting makes information free and accessible to everyone while accruing value to the creator. Zora is bringing the world’s imagination onchain so more people can realize more from their ideas.”

What if web3 were to consult the imaginal realm, peer into the depths of our crystal Zorbs, and envision the magic that could be unlocked over time if significant numbers of artists...

  • ...receive new income streams as more people ferret out and mint hidden gems on multiple blockchains using tools such as Zora's new search function? (Try it with Zorbs!)

  • ...use blockchain tools to pay all creative collaborators anywhere in the world directly, so no one has to chase their pay?

  • ...have realistic paths to sustainable incomes from their creative work without pursuing day jobs/side hustles, courting favor with grants committees, attracting a massive social media following, or ranking among the top 1% in their craft?

  • ...have more freedom to act on their desires to give, because the income from positive-sum incentive structures enables them to do so without sacrificing their own needs?

  • ...spend less time on "hope labor" and devote more time to their craft?

What else? Feel free to continue the conversation.

Perhaps this future sounds too good to be true? Creatives are so used to getting the short end of the stick financially that it's hard to imagine things being any other way. Most artists have been lured by extractive bait-and-switch patterns framed as "creator liberation" and paid a hefty price out of their own hide. It's sensible to proceed with great care.

Of course zero-ETH Zora Mints will not be suitable for every artist, nor for all mints. Rewarding "free" work with ETH over the long term is fundamentally new, however, and merits additional recognition for that reason.

In any case, all such mechanisms will be gamed, and no doubt other limits will be revealed with time and experience. Still, Protocol Rewards seems well-positioned to serve as a path-opener for building businesses that enable more people to realize more from their ideas over time, and "rewards+++" are coming soon.

Zora is a special place with a proven track record and a top-notch reputation among artists, musicians, and writers. Their work continues to gather momentum as they build infrastructure to fund a golden age of onchain media.

I think Zora is onto something significant — something capable of building generative network wealth that can only unfold over time, and only in expansive contexts that enable art to be both free and valuable on artists' own terms.

In the meantime, it's good to remember that imagination and attention are acts of creation. Let's use them wisely.

May reciprocity lead the way.


  • I use the words artists and creatives more or less interchangeably to refer to those who do creative labor such as visual art, music, writing, photography, dance, etc.

    In my lexicon:

  • Art typically means a specific kind of creative work: that which is emergent and driven by the deep mind. (For deeper insight into the phenomenology of creative processes, I recommend A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer's Guide to the Inner Genius by Matt Cardin).

  • Content creation means creative work intended for the "creator economy" or for marketing reasons such as branding and building an audience.

  • These categories are not mutually exclusive. Both have their place. My intent is not to malign content creation or marketing, but to clarify a distinction that's often glossed over. I like Thomas J. Bevan's take: "Content is a transaction presented as utilitarian exchange, art is an emanation of the spirit presented as a gift."

  • Creators can apply to people in both categories.

  • Value means vitality, as in this take by Oshan Jarow: "...the positive flow of vitality into a living system." I also agree with the rest of Jarow's thesis: "Over-reliance on markets is undermining the production of value. A strategy of ‘unconditionality’ can help realign progress with the production of real value."

  • Wealth means plenitude of value. Wealth includes access to capital and financial resources plus trust, time, attention, care infrastructure, health (including ecological and spiritual health), and relations of reciprocity.


[Author's note: This essay is also available as a free Zora Mint. This is the second essay in my Forms of Incubation series — a web3-native project to open-source creative processes in the context of scenius. More info in the intro essay.]

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#zora#web3#arts#labor#scenius#scenius labor#reciprocity#digital publishing#onchain media#value flows#philosophy#farcaster#creative process#creativity
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