Artists say plagiarized NFTs plague their community

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have opened up previously unimaginable opportunities for many artists to create or “emboss” unique works of art and to reach a global collector base at the push 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, is accompanied by an increase in reports of so-called “NFT theft” – artists have their works plagiarized, stamped as an NFT, and even sold to buyers who believe they are getting the real deal.

Although 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 top-class makers like RJ Palmer and Loish report the thefts on social media.

Many artists say their work was originally confiscated from DeviantArt, a popular online art community with over 70 million registered users and half a billion works of art.

“Unfortunately I have to close my entire @DeviantArt gallery completely because people keep stealing my art and doing NFTs,” it recently said in one tweet by Liam Sharp, an artist for DC Comics. “I can’t – and don’t have to – report everyone and bring a case that is consistently ignored.”

Earlier this year, DeviantArt launched a new tool that scans public blockchains and third-party marketplaces and alerts its members to possible art fraud. It has sent more than 50,000 alerts of possible NFT violations since August.

However, once they have received the notification from DeviantArt, users must file a deactivation request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) with the marketplace where the NFT was minted, such as OpenSea. Affected artists say the long response times and sheer volume of incidents make it almost impossible to get a grip on the problem.

Screenshots of Jon Neimeister’s work uploaded to DeviantArt in 2016 (left) and recently embossed on OpenSea without his permission (right). (courtesy of the artist)

“Platforms like OpenSea do not charge any initial coin minting fees, so there are tons of bots wandering through artist portfolios and shaping their work as NFTs,” Jon Neimeister, an artist and game developer whose work was stolen and posted on the platform, said Hyperallergic. “OpenSea is sticking to the takedowns, but they are 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 aren’t going to sell, but if you can use bots to list 500,000 pieces and sell 1% of them, that’s decent money with no risk or impact,” he said. Neimeister hopes to help other victims of NFT theft by building a “jam” of evidences for possible legal action, and has so far received screenshots of stolen art from over 60 artists.

The practice of charging minting fees after an item is sold, known as “lazyminting,” means thieves have nothing to lose, explains @NFT theft, an anonymous group of artists raising awareness of plagiarism and fraud in the NFT and crypto scene.

“Scammers can steal thousands of works of art and upload them in bulk at no upfront cost,” they told Hyperallergic. “You are only charged when and when a piece is sold. If this piece turns out to be plagiarism and removed the day after the sale, OpenSea will still keep its stake and so will the scammers. ”

Because transactions on the blockchain are inherently anonymous, “OpenSea has no way of tracking down fraudsters to seek compensation on behalf of a victim,” the group added.

OpenSea has not yet responded to Hyperallergics’ request for comment and it is unclear whether it will take steps to compensate artists for fraudulent sales. @NFTtheft says charging a listing fee and implementing a “Know Your Customer” (KYC) policy that requires a valid ID for users to sell digital assets would make the situation a lot better.

On the other hand, some users have raised concerns on filing DMCA deactivation requests that require disclosure of personal information such as legal name and email address. These details are given to the accused party so that they “understand why” [the work] is no longer available on OpenSea and can also contact you to resolve disputes, ”it says on the platform in its IP takedown application form.

“Artists are concerned that bots collect their personal information,” Neimeister told Hyperallergic. “It’s a 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 that the company originally developed the copy detection mechanism called DeviantArt Protect to prevent plagiarism on its own platform. (The tool is available to all users free of charge for the first three months. After that, they must upgrade to any level of “core” membership that starts at $ 3.95 per month to access the service.)

“We have been dealing with art theft for 21 years,” said Gurwicz. “We get thousands of works of art submitted every day. We started using AI machine learning models to identify nearly identical pieces of art that were submitted on our platform, and since launching for our own platform we’ve seen a 57% increase in successful deactivations. ”

When popular artist and DeviantArt user Qing Han died of cancer in February 2020, the platform discovered that scammers were taking artwork from their profile and selling them as NFTs.

“It was a very devastating moment for the DeviantArt community to see people doing this to a creator and abusing her work like that,” Gurwicz said. “At this point we decided that we would try to expand the technology for the blockchain as well.” DeviantArt now scans over three million different images every week and is initially focusing on the Ethereum and Polygon blockchains.

But once DeviantArt alerts users to a possible scam on an NFT marketplace like OpenSea, the problem is out of their hands. The company hopes to work with marketplaces and is currently in talks with multiple platforms to integrate the takedown process.

“Many of them are young companies. We really want to believe that what they are experiencing now are growing pains and that they will do better, ”Gurwicz said. “We get to that after years of dealing with this day in and day out and we understand it very well.” (Levy added that, despite some reports of collaborations, DeviantArt does not currently have any commercial partnerships with OpenSea.)

“It may seem like these bots are mostly stealing from Deviant Art, but that’s just because we hear about it the most,” @NFTtheft told Hyperallergic. “Tumblr, Etsy, Twitter, and Instagram are all scraped for art, but they don’t currently offer the same tool as Deviant Art to alert users if their art is being sold illegally on an NFT marketplace.”

The group adds that OpenSea “is really just a symbol of a bigger problem” and that at the heart of NFT theft is a problem inherent in the new technology.

“Anyone can coin and sell anything while remaining anonymous, so this problem only gets worse. This is a decentralized technology after all, right now marketplaces like OpenSea play a big role, but scammers can always hop around or find new ways to sell plagiarism without the big marketplaces, “they said. “OpenSea could better monitor its platform, but what we’re seeing is just a glimpse into the future of NFTs. We are in a race to the bottom and the scammers will win in the end. “

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