People Are Stealing Art and Turning It Into NFTs

The blockchain-based art collecting craze is fueling theft that artists are struggling to keep up with.
March 15, 2021, 4:39pm
People Are Stealing Art and Turning It Into NFTs

Blockchain-based collectibles are fueling a speculative art craze and igniting controversy even as major artists and musicians dig in to explore the possibilities. But non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are also fueling rampant theft that artists are struggling to keep up with. 

Over the past month, established artists and newcomers alike have complained about their publicly viewable work being transformed into NFTs and peddled to potential buyers at eye-watering prices, without their permission. Those responsible sometimes hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts, making it difficult to know where to start in order to contest copyright violations. 

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NFTs, developed over the past few years but reaching the peak of popularity now, are basically digital artworks assigned a unique cryptographic hash which confers a vague form of ownership onto the purchaser. Recently NFTs of all sorts of things—high-concept abstractions, Elon Musk’s tweets, a minimalist doodle by Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland—have commanded dazzling prices; on Thursday, a piece by the popular artist Mike Winkelmann, AKA “Beeple,” sold for $69 million in a Christie’s auction

The speculative mania has produced a new breed of opportunists who have taken to turning other people’s work into NFTs—through a process called “tokenization”—and flogging them on online marketplaces . There are also services specifically set up to monetize others' content; a service called Tokenized Tweets, for example, encourages users to "tokenize your favorite tweet before it's taken" on its website and features images of users tokenizing tweets made by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. 

All of this is forcing artists into the position of seeking out recourse for copyright violations or considering measures like locking down their social media accounts. 

“It’s not great,” said RJ Palmer, a California based artist known for his hyperrealistic renderings of Pokémon, in an interview. Palmer, who also worked as a concept artist on Detective Pikachu, recently had NFT enthusiasts tokenize tweets containing his works by tagging the account of the Twitter-based NFT creation service “Tokenized Tweets." He even discovered recently that in 2018, early NFT art collectors  had tokenized several of his artworks on the marketplace Marble Cards, though to his relief they didn’t sell. 

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Earlier this week, Palmer wrote a thread on Twitter criticizing the trend of NFT theft, describing it as a parasitic, unhelpful approach to the distribution of art. 

“Of course my stuff gets stolen all the time by T-shirt sites, etc., and in those cases it’s not difficult to file a DMCA takedown,” Palmer said. But with the unregulated NFT markets that often feature anonymous buyers, things are more complicated. “It’s very concerning from a rights standpoint.”

Nevertheless, he said, thieves had justified their actions to him in two ways. “One of the biggest ones is, like, ‘This is the future of art,” he says. “Another is, ‘You just want artists to be poor.’”

For smaller artists, the trend is beginning to look like a genuine threat. Corbin Rainbolt, who designs detailed paleoart, that is, images of prehistoric life such as dinosaurs, discovered that work he posted to Twitter had been monetized by Tokenized Tweets without his consent. 

Rainbolt immediately deleted all of his old paleoart tweets and reuploaded them with a watermark. But even that might not be enough, he said, and he expects he’ll have to make his account private—as other paleoartists have done—which will hurt his ability to generate commissions. 

Rainbolt, like Palmer, posted a widely cited tweet about the problem, and things quickly took a farcical turn as people monetized his tweets complaining about non-consensual monetization. 

Once I started getting it out there, there were people who tagged the tweet in which I was complaining about NFTs, in order to make it into an NFT about the exact thing I was complaining about," he said.

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Nelson M. Rosario, an American copyright attorney who has already begun to field work in the NFT world, said that  under US copyright law there is “recourse for a person who feels their work has been NFT’d without their permission," but that "the intellectual property considerations get very complex very quickly.” 

Often the problem comes down to creators and purchasers being anonymous, he said, as with NFT marketplaces, which operate at varying levels of transparency. 

On the subject of Tokenized Tweets, Rosario noted that the platform ostensibly offers a “takedown form” for artists who believe their work has been stolen. Rosario said the form checks out and resembles those used by Twitter, but others have argued that the very notion of an NFT “takedown form” is nonsensical due to the blockchain's permanent record. However, takedowns under copyright law might be a viable avenue for victims. 

This is because NFTs are not JPEGs, or tweets, or anything like that; they are cryptographic signatures (an alphanumeric code) that buyers and sellers merely believe is somehow connected to the work in question. Where and how the actual work itself is stored or hosted online is incidental to this cryptographic proof. 

According to "Iamtexture," a pseudonymous developer involved in Ethereum since the early days, NFTs are logged onto the ledger of (usually) the Ethereum blockchain, so this code (which has no real or meaningful connection to the works) is permanent, but the works themselves are often not. They may be hosted on a regular website, for example.

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"The platform could remove the image potentially," Iamtexture explained, "but it might be on the Interplanetary File System." The IPFS is a distributed file system where it is possible for individuals to take down content, but that content may already be infinitely hosted by others. Some projects, such as “PixelChain,” let people produce work that is simple enough to store on the blockchain itself—but this is rare, and expensive.

So, although this isn't always the case, the digital works hosted on marketplaces and other websites can likely be taken down, even if the NFT itself can't. In that case, all the hapless NFT buyer is left with is a string of letters and numbers that someone, somewhere, swears is worth as much as a luxury car due to its tenuous and likely illegal relationship to someone else's art. 

Clearly, the situation is complicated. Rosario said that licensing regimes will likely have to adapt, especially in the event a “brand like Disney begins to dip its toes into the NFT space.” 

“Things will get very weird very quickly,” he said. “Disney has an army of lawyers, so it’s not going to be the ‘yolo free money’ approach we’ve seen thus far.” 

Faced with an impossible situation, some creators are using the technology to get ahead of the theft that it enables. Allie Eve Knox, a fetish performer and content creator, has been experimenting with NFTs recently, and the prospect of her work being NFT’d without permission unnerves her. 

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“I haven’t [experienced it yet] but I’m wondering what will happen when I do,” she said. “I don’t want people to use my image for whatever the fuck they want.” Knox doesn’t want her work being used in advertising, she said, or sold to people who are underage. 

Her makeshift solution to prevent people from stealing her work and NFT'ing it before she can sell it has been to censor her art with a “Bid Now” banner that disappears after purchase, meaning the uncensored image can’t be accessed before then—after which, she said, people can do whatever they want with it including resell it to someone else. Even then, Knox said, the carte blanche rights conferred to NFT buyers brings up further concerns. 

“They have paid for it but, like, if someone used it for a MAGA ad, I would be furious, because I never consented for my image to be used that way," she said. "When I shoot for a company or whatever, I sign those rights away in a contract, but here, there is no contract. There is no law. There is no regulation, aside from moderation of the site—which is hella subjective.”

Even artists who don't see any promise in NFTs might be forced to play along for now. 

Rainbolt said that he finds NFTs "reprehensible” and resents people tokenizing his work. His chief problem, he said, is the elephantine carbon footprint of the Ethereum network, which currently uses energy issuing new tokens as a reward for processing transactions (including NFTs) in batches in a process called "mining." Still, Rainbolt said, there is an enormous sense of pressure now to join in on the trend or lose out. 

“People have been telling me to make my own pieces into NFTs before someone else does, since these things can only be done once,” he said. 

“It doesn’t seem there’s any real action to stop this stuff at the moment,” he said “It’s not a few bad actors ruining an otherwise beautiful thing, but the logical conclusion of what this thing is. And it depreciates the idea that art can have any value that isn’t monetary.”