Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have opened up previously unimaginable possibilities for many artists, allowing them to create or “mint” unique artworks and reach a global collector base at the click of a button. But the growing popularity of these digital assets, whose authenticity and proof of ownership are ostensibly secured by their existence on the blockchain, has been accompanied by a rise in reports of so-called “NFT theft” — artists having their work plagiarized, minted as an NFT, and even sold to buyers who believe they are acquiring the real deal.
Though the incidents have been documented on a number of platforms, OpenSea, the world’s largest NFT marketplace, is at the center of the current controversy, with high-profile creators such as RJ Palmer and Loish taking to social media to denounce the thefts.
Many artists say their work was initially seized from DeviantArt, a popular online art community that has over 70 million registered users and half a billion pieces of art.
“Sadly I’m going to have to completely shut down my entire @DeviantArt gallery as people keep stealing my art and making NFTs,” reads a recent tweet from Liam Sharp, an artist for DC Comics. “I can’t – and shouldn’t have to – report each one and make a case, which is consistently ignored.”
Earlier this year, DeviantArt launched a new tool that scans public blockchains and third-party marketplaces and alerts its members of potential art fraud. It has sent more than 50,000 alerts for possible NFT infringements since August.
Once they receive the notification from DeviantArt, however, users must file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown request with the marketplace where the NFT was minted, such as OpenSea. Impacted artists say long response times and the sheer volume of incidents makes it nearly impossible to get a grip on the issue.
“Platforms like OpenSea don’t charge initial fees to mint, so there’s tons of bots that are dragging through artists’ portfolios and minting their work as NFTs,” Jon Neimeister, an artist and game developer whose work has been stolen and listed on the platform, told Hyperallergic. “OpenSea is being compliant with the takedowns, but they’re getting overwhelmed with these tickets and it can take two to three weeks for a user to get a response.”
“Most of these auto-minted pieces won’t sell, but if they can use bots to list 500,000 pieces and 1% of them sell, that’s decent money with no risk or repercussions,” he said. Neimeister hopes to help other victims of NFT theft by building a “backlog of evidence” of transgressions to potentially pursue legal action, and has received screenshots of stolen art from over 60 artists so far.
The practice of charging minting fees only after a piece has sold, known as “lazyminting,” means thieves have nothing to lose, explains @NFTtheft, an anonymous group of artists who are building awareness of plagiarism and fraud in the NFT and crypto scene.
“Scammers can grab thousands of pieces of art and upload them in bulk with no upfront costs,” they told Hyperallergic. “They only get charged when and if a piece sells. If that piece turns out to be plagiarized and gets taken down the day after it sells, OpenSea still keeps their cut and so do the scammers.”
Because transactions on the blockchain are inherently anonymous, “OpenSea has no way to track down scammers to collect damages on behalf of a victim,” the group added.
OpenSea has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, and it is unclear whether it is taking steps to compensate artists for fraudulent sales. @NFTtheft says charging a listing fee and implementing a KYC (“Know Your Customer”) policy requiring a valid ID for users to sell digital assets would significantly ameliorate the situation.
On the other hand, some users have expressed concerns about filing DMCA takedown requests, which require disclosing personal information such as one’s legal name and email address. These details are shared with the accused party so that they “understand why [the work] is no longer available on OpenSea and can also contact you to resolve any dispute,” the platform says on its IP Takedown Request Form.
“Artists are concerned with having bots collect their personal information,” Neimeister told Hyperallergic. “It’s standard procedure for DMCA, but the sellers on OpenSea and their wallets are completely anonymous, OpenSea doesn’t necessarily know who they are.”
In an interview with Hyperallergic, DeviantArt CMO Liat Karpel Gurwicz and COO Moti Levy said the company had initially developed the copy detection mechanism, called DeviantArt Protect, as a way to prevent plagiarism on its own platform. (The tool is available free of charge to all users for the first three months, after which they must upgrade to any level of a “Core” membership, which start at $3.95 per month, to access the service.)
“We have been dealing with the issue of art theft for 21 years,” Gurwicz said. “We get thousands of pieces of art submitted every day. We started using machine learning AI models to identify near identical pieces of art submitted to our platform, and since launching it for our own platform we have seen a 57% increase in successful takedown.”
In February 2020, when the popular artist and DeviantArt user Qing Han died of cancer, the platform discovered that scammers were taking artwork from her profile and selling it as NFTs.
“It was a very devastating moment for the DeviantArt community to see that people would do that to a creator, abuse her work like that,” Gurwicz explained. “At that point we decided we would try to extend the technology for the blockchain as well.” DeviantArt is now scanning over three million distinct images every week, focusing on the Ethereum and Polygon blockchains for the time being.
But once DeviantArt alerts users of possible fraud on an NFT marketplace like OpenSea, the issue is out of their hands. The company says it hopes to partner with marketplaces and is currently in discussions with several platforms to integrate the takedown process.
“Many of them are new companies. We really want to believe that what they are experiencing now are growing pains and that they will do better,” Gurwicz said. “We come to this with years of dealing with this day in and day out and understand it really well.” (Levy added that despite some reports of collaborations, DeviantArt currently has no commercial partnerships with OpenSea.)
“It may seem like these bots are stealing mostly from Deviant Art, but that’s just because we hear about that the most,” @NFTtheft told Hyperallergic. “Tumblr, Etsy, Twitter, and Instagram are all being scraped for art, but they don’t currently offer the same tool that DeviantArt does to alert users when their art is illegally being sold on an NFT marketplace.”
The group adds that OpenSea “is really just a symbol of a bigger problem,” and that at the core of NFT theft is an issue inherent to the new technology.
“Anyone can mint anything and sell it while staying anonymous, so this problem is only going to get worse. This is a decentralized technology after all, at the moment marketplaces like OpenSea play a big role, but scammers can always hop around or find new ways to sell plagiarized art without the big marketplaces,” they said. “OpenSea could do better to police its platform, but what we are seeing is just a peek into the future of NFTs. We are in a race to the bottom and the scammers will win in the end.”
Plagiarism plagues nearly every creative endeavor, but copyright law never anticipated absolute anonymity among buyers, sellers and an utterly opaque marketplace where there is no way to distinguish originals from copies. In this new digital space where artistic content is primarily defined by exclusivity and uniqueness, then the ancient caveat emptor maxim is the only possible response.
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