It’s never been easier to steal art – Morning Brew
· 10 min read
The Goblin Asses were gone, likely stolen by a bot.
The NFTs were part of a larger project called GoblinAssTown, a series of images that featured crudely drawn wrinkly goblin butts with ears in various poses, created by Fedor Linnik and Vitaly Terletsky and two of their friends. The project, which is an ironic take on the wildly popular NFT series Goblin Town, was still a work in progress, scheduled to launch just days after all of the goblins were taken.
Think of it as an art heist for the 21st century. It wasn’t exactly like the “Mona Lisa” being stolen from the Louvre—nothing was ripped off walls and carried out under the cover of night. No secretive international deals were made and art didn’t trade hands. Instead, a scraping bot probably found the collection and created a fake website offering multiple Goblin Ass NFTs for free. The scammer also put up a Goblin Ass collection on OpenSea—the largest NFT marketplace—before the real, authentic Goblin Asses were listed for sale. Linnik and Terletsky put the real sale on hold and went into damage control.
The theft was short-lived and the OG project ultimately recovered: its creators listed roughly 8,900 Goblin Asses on several NFT marketplaces including OpenSea. The theft was only unusual for the unusual number of goblins involved—stolen art is a common occurrence in the NFT world. Artists who spoke to Morning Brew said the prevalence of theft in the NFT space shows how its most-touted feature—IP protection—turned out to be its biggest drawback.
Aspiring art thieves no longer need deep knowledge of a museum’s layout, security system, and patrol shifts. They just need to know some code. That’s because of the nature of Web3, a decentralized and democratized space. In some ways, Web3 has delivered. Small numbers of artists have made fortunes selling NFTs. But for artists like Eric Proctor, NFT marketplaces are the same as Web2 destinations like Etsy, Amazon, or Redbubble: just another place that he needs to check for stolen artwork.
Though the NFT craze is no longer making daily headlines, tens of millions of dollars of NFTs are still traded every day. In the background is the constant whir of theft, even as your normie friend has stopped asking what’s up with those expensive monkey pictures.
NFTs have taken a dive since Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton did their Bored Ape show-and-tell on television in January. In July, OpenSea laid off 20% of its workforce, citing “crypto winter and broad macroeconomic instability.” Beeple’s $69 million NFT sale last year couldn’t be replicated now, as daily NFT sales hover around $30 million total, compared to sales approaching a quarter-billion dollars last August.
The early promise of NFTs was alluring, especially for artists: They were a way to make money while securing the digital rights to one’s work. Bor, who described themselves as a Bay Area artist, once considered getting into NFTs after they were introduced to the concept in December 2020. They recalled a friend promising that NFTs would be “a revolutionary new artform,” describing a medium on the blockchain that would prevent plagiarism. The potential of NFTs at the outset was a promise of protection, but bor’s initial idealism faded and quickly turned into deep distrust. Now they spend their spare time running the Twitter account @NFTtheft, a resource for artists to identify stolen work and to find resources for reporting IP infringement.
Part of the problem is that there’s no surefire centralized way to verify if an NFT has been created with stolen art, because why would there be? “Minting art doesn’t protect artists,” bor said. “Anyone can mint anyone else’s work.” Instead, artists and collectors look to @NFTtheft to see a timeline of contraband, from stolen pixelated cityscapes to Squid Game rip-offs. On July 20, the account reported a $460,000 project based completely on stolen artwork.
To bor, the Goblin Ass heist was just another example of how much plagiarism occurs on NFT platforms, and they’ve seen a lot. Artists sharing their art on NFT marketplaces might inadvertently invite thieves to copy their work—thieves who otherwise would not know that artist existed. “Minting your NFT actually puts you at a high risk of having your art stolen, and it certainly doesn’t protect you,” bor said.
Ironically, bor said, when the @NFTtheft account would contact owners or potential buyers of stolen or fraudulent NFTs, they didn’t thank bor for their hard work. “Their response is then to go into defensive mode and protect their asset,” they said, noticing a “mental gymnastics” as users tried to justify their financial and emotional investment.
“Nothing makes sense in this freaking market,” bor added.
The market does seem to evade logic in the traditional sense. The value of an NFT doesn’t appear to correlate with the quality of the art, which is often simple and intentionally off-putting. Aside from Goblin Asses and Goblin Town, there are also Crypto DickButts. Crypto Dickbutt #1068, a reference to a decade-old meme that looks exactly like what it sounds like, sold for 69 ETH, or roughly $115,000 today. Even though NFTs’ most basic use case—selling art with a mechanism to curtail counterfeits—hasn’t solidified, the Web3 hype train lurches forward. Meanwhile, artists are still trying to figure out how to get their work off of NFT marketplaces as they watch others profit from their livelihood.
One of the oldest social networks for artists is taking a crack at solving this problem. DeviantArt has been around since 2000. In both age and mission, DeviantArt feels like the opposite of NFT marketplaces: financialization is not front-and-center to the platform, nor is the art an afterthought (see: most NFTs).
Liat Karpel Gurwicz, DeviantArt’s CMO, believes that artists are the canary in the coal mine of Web3. Many artists truly believe in the democratization of Web3, particularly women artists looking for an alternative to the stagnant and biased status quo. While the NFT marketplace was first promised as a way for artists to build equity in their creations, freeing themselves from a “work-for hire” model, it’s “not delivering on that promise at all,” Gurwicz said. The reality is much bleaker, rife with not just art infringement, but also wash trading and rug-pulling, which led the company to get involved.
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“[Artists] are left in a desperate struggle to prevent thieves from just abusing their lifetime’s creation and minting them in a matter of seconds,” she said. Web3, she argued, needs creators to join its spaces. “And they will not join until the Web3 community does a better job of how they treat artists.”
The glut of bad actors and their scam techniques in the NFT space is the reason DeviantArt decided to offer tools to help creators find out if their artwork had been stolen and minted on an NFT marketplace, with steps to assist in the takedown process as defined by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It’s kind of like TurnItIn.com for NFTs, if homework was art and the TurnItIn database was a bunch of blockchains. The company scans over 12 million new NFTs every week across multiple blockchains, and they’ve found over 300,000 infringements.
Eric Proctor is one of the artists whose work has been stolen and minted as NFTs.
Proctor, an illustrator who creates under the name TsaoShin, tries to put his art wherever he can: DeviantArt, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. He also creates content as a Twitch streamer and makes YouTube videos. DeviantArt is his largest platform, the online art gallery where he’s shared his work for 17 years. His artist page has been viewed over 4.5 million times.
Though Proctor has never sold his own NFTs, you can still buy knockoffs of TsaoShin artwork on OpenSea. The trouble started in February, he said, when someone notified him on Twitter that his work had been listed on OpenSea. He realized someone had copied his entire DeviantArt gallery and minted it on the NFT marketplace, creating an account under the name TsaoShin, with links to Proctor’s artist websites to make the listing appear legitimate.
After Proctor contacted OpenSea and waited several days, the marketplace eventually took down the bulk upload. But Proctor said that despite OpenSea’s actions, he continued to see up to 50 of his creations uploaded to the marketplace per day. He usually sells prints of his illustrations at conventions for $15 a pop, while on OpenSea he saw one of his pieces go for 1 ETH, which was a few thousand dollars at the time. As of this writing, his artwork is still on OpenSea, though Proctor confirmed he’s not selling it.
The low barrier for anyone to mint NFTs is part of the reason theft is so prevalent. OpenSea did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication. Another NFT marketplace, Cent, which sold an NFT of Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet for roughly $3 million, shut down in February, citing “rampant fraud.”
But that’s part of the appeal. “Lazy minting,” according to OpenSea, “unbundles the on-chain issuance of your NFTs from the metadata.” What this means in plain English is that an NFT isn’t actually “created” until it is purchased. Think of them as a digital version of those oddly specific t-shirts about being an organ donor with a rescue chihuahua that get marketed to you on Facebook. Those t-shirts only get printed if you order one (and thank you for being an organ donor). To bor, this feature is a key driver of bogus NFT art.
This means anyone can sell an NFT, and it’s only minted once a buyer is confirmed. OpenSea attempted to limit the number of free NFT collections a user could host on its platform. But customers were angered by the decision, and the company capitulated, even though the platform itself had said that 80% of freely minted NFTs were either plagiarized, fake, or a scam.
Even with facts on their side, those calling out scams in the NFT world can be outflanked by savvy opponents like hackers and NFT boosters with a Discord chat full of focused believers.
Bor cited a recent rug-pull by a project called Akumas_NFT, which made NFTs based on art stolen from an artist called Yuto Sano. The @NFTtheft account warned buyers the project was based on stolen material, bor said. But the hype for the project endured regardless of many warnings—a combination of bots and real people continued to express excitement about the launch.
Prior to launch, Akumas_NFT shut down its Discord server, where participants were communicating and amping each other up. The project changed its Twitter account name to @Forgetus4evar. It was like a“middle finger” to those who had already purchased promised NFTs on the project website, bor said. They felt like the whole thing happened in slow motion.
It’s almost impossible to have a lukewarm take on the matter, but that’s what Proctor is trying to do. “Whatever NFTs could have been, what they are right now is horrible,” Proctor said.
Despite his negative personal experience with NFTs, he positions himself philosophically somewhere between the biggest skeptics and the most hardened believers. Because of all the fraud and theft in the NFT space, it’s now difficult to even have a conversation about them without it turning heated, Proctor said.
“I’m not involved with NFTs,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to be. But I can also see the promise over the horizon.”
There is still some enthusiasm, especially from people and companies who’ve placed bets that NFTs will only go up. There are many promised applications for NFTs and Web3 as a whole, but one of the simplest use cases—plagiarism-free art transactions—has yet to materialize. Creating in Web3 has been described as building a plane while flying it. If that’s the case, there are artists who didn’t even want tickets for the flight, but their work is still on board.
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August 5, 2022 at 08:04PM