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What are Bitcoin NFTs? 

General Wallet Use

15 min

Most NFT enthusiasts largely associate non-fungible tokens with the Ethereum blockchain. But in the last year, Bitcoin NFTs have been stepping into the spotlight, highlighting the original blockchain’s versatility. However, it would be a misconception to think the history of Bitcoin NFTs only began with Ordinals. In fact, NFTs have existed on Bitcoin for years. 


While Bitcoin lacks some of the attributes, like smart contracts, which allow Ethereum NFTs to live natively on the blockchain, L2s like Stacks and new innovations like the Ordinals protocol are changing the NFT landscape. Let’s talk about Bitcoin NFTs and how they work.

Where Did Bitcoin NFTs Come From?


The evolution of NFTs on Bitcoin started with the dawn of cryptocurrency itself. In fact, even from the genesis block of the Bitcoin blockchain back in 2009, the foundations for NFTs were being laid. Although Bitcoin, like fiat currency, was created to be fungible, the scripting language allowed for short messages to be associated with specific tokens. The genesis block itself famously included a message referencing a news headline, “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.”


This capability for adding information to Bitcoin transactions brought about Colored Coins — an early iteration of what would later be called NFTs. Colored Coins distinguished groups of bitcoins by “marking” them in a process called bitcoin coloring. These Colored Coins could be used to represent real-world or digital assets and were a first step in introducing non-fungibility to Bitcoin.


The concept of assigning unique properties to specific coins expanded. In 2010, discussions on the BitcoinTalk forum explored the development of BitDNS. The aim was to extend Bitcoin's functionality into domain name services. Despite concerns raised by many in the community, BitDNS eventually evolved into Namecoin. All the while, debates continued about the validity and risks of expanding use cases on the Bitcoin network.


In 2015, disputes began about Bitcoin's message size limits and whether they should be increased or decreased. The community debated if the network should be used for services like DNS and other use cases beyond currency transactions. This time of tension and problem-solving brought about several new innovations.


One of the projects that emerged was Counterparty — a protocol built on top of Bitcoin with a native decentralized exchange (DEX) and token. Counterparty facilitated the creation of NFTs on the Bitcoin blockchain with projects like Rare Pepes and Spells of Genesis. They introduced NFT collections and trading card ownership, although they weren’t called NFTs at the time. 


Next came the layer 2 (L2) ecosystem and protocols like Stacks, which allowed NFTs to be created off-chain but settled on the main chain. The L2 space provided a valuable niche for NFTs in the Bitcoin community. And, although L2 NFTs weren’t native, Ordinals soon swept onto the scene to offer digital artifacts completely on-chain. 

How do Bitcoin NFTs work?


The NFT market on Bitcoin is thriving thanks to L2s like Stacks. The Stacks protocol introduced smart contracts and decentralized applications (dApps) to Bitcoin, creating a thriving ecosystem of web3 applications. A layer 2 blockchain, Stacks seamlessly integrates with the Bitcoin base chain, leveraging its security and network effects for NFT creation and management. 

How Do Bitcoin NFTs Work in the Stacks Ecosystem?


Stacks introduces smart contract functionality using a coding language called Clarity. Unlike Ethereum's gas fees, which can fluctuate significantly, Clarity smart contracts offer a more predictable and transparent environment for NFT creation and execution.


Proof-of-Transfer (PoX) is a novel consensus mechanism Stacks uses to confirm blocks on its blockchain. PoX incentivizes miners to participate in securing the Stacks network by transferring Bitcoin to other participants rather than burning tokens. This process leverages Bitcoin's security on the Stacks ecosystem, making it an attractive option for NFT creators and collectors.

How Do You Mint NFTs on Stacks?


It’s not hard to mint NFTs on Stacks with platforms like Gamma, one of the leading Stacks NFT marketplaces.


By connecting a wallet to Gamma or another marketplace, users can mint NFT from existing collections or create their own. Alternatively, users can browse the secondary marketplace where others have listed their NFTs for purchase.

Examples of Bitcoin NFT Use Cases


Bitcoin NFTs on L2s like Stacks are useful more than just digital art — which is what most people think of. They can encompass real-world ownership rights, decentralized identity solutions, and tokenization of physical assets like real estate. Projects like Gamma and StacksBridge open a diverse range of NFT applications, spanning from digital collectibles to cross-chain asset interoperability.


Bitcoin NFTs can also be useful for decentralized finance (DeFi) applications, allowing users to access native Bitcoin liquidity for lending, borrowing, and trading. Projects like ALEX, LNSwap, and Arkadiko demonstrate the potential for Bitcoin-based DeFi solutions.


Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) use smart contracts to facilitate collective governance and decision-making on Bitcoin. NFTs can be used for access or membership in certain DAOs.

Bitcoin NFTs vs. Ordinals


While both Ordinal inscriptions and NFTs represent unique digital assets on the blockchain, there are important differences. The Ordinals protocol involves assigning numbers to individual satoshis. This process essentially "marks" specific satoshis with unique information. Minting Bitcoin Ordinals uses a method of attributing distinct properties to specific units of Bitcoin, creating digital artifacts on the blockchain.


Bitcoin NFTs represent ownership of a specific digital item or piece of content on the blockchain. NFTs are distinct from bitcoins themselves and can be traded, bought, and sold like traditional collectibles. Unlike Ordinals, which tie a certain amount of data to satoshis, NFTs are a different kind of digital asset — usually artwork, digital collectibles, or real-world assets.


Ordinals are significant for the Bitcoin NFT ecosystem because they catalyzed excitement and innovation on Bitcoin. While an Ordinal NFT isn’t an NFT in the traditional sense, they paved the way for the development of new NFT-related technologies and use cases on Bitcoin.

Conclusion


NFTs, as we understand them today, only gained popularity in the last few years. And that popularity mostly came with Ethereum NFTs. But as we’ve learned, the concept of non-fungible tokens originated on the Bitcoin blockchain and is still evolving today. From Colored Coins to L2s to Ordinals’ digital artifacts, the Bitcoin NFT space continues to grow and change every day.


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