Sales of NFT art are booming. Just without the permission of some artists.

Digital thieves had previously stolen from Aja Trier.

Trier, a painter in San Antonio, often riffs on Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” adds dogs or dinosaurs to it, or recreates it as a desert landscape or Mordor from “The Lord of the Rings.” She sells versions on mugs and mouse pads and pillows, and over the years she has caught and stopped people from selling pirated versions of her work on Amazon and other online marketplaces.

But thanks to the explosion of the NFT art market, thieves have started stealing her work at an astonishing rate. Last week, an unidentified user on OpenSea, the dominant marketplace for the burgeoning NFT art market, began putting tens of thousands of listings of his work, often duplicates, up for sale. 37 of them were sold before she was able to convince the platform to take them down.

“They just kept taking and remodeling them as NFTs,” Trier said. “It’s so obvious. And if it happens to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Trier’s history has already become commonplace in the burgeoning world of NFT art sales. RJ Palmer, a San Francisco artist who designs creatures and monsters both as commissioned digital works and for film and video game companies, said issuing removal requests to NFT platforms for his work became a daily routine before he eventually gave up.

“It must be too many. It became this part of my day,” Palmer said, adding that he would constantly send emails to try to get NFTs removed. “This puts so much work on me. I just do not want to deal with it. “

As the NFT art market picks up, systems to ensure that a buyer makes a legal purchase of digital ownership have not been able to keep up. Anonymous thieves now regularly steal all the digital art they can find online, publishing it as their own to sell. While NFT supporters highlight technology as a way to revolutionize art protection, the fast-growing digital marketplaces that enable these sales have so far done little to stop piracy.

Aja Trier’s artwork for sale by an art thief. OpenSea has since taken down the listing.Aja Trier

NFTs, short for non-fungible tokens, have exploded as a new kind of art market in the last two years, promising a way for people to prove they own a digital asset. Rooted in the same blockchain technology as cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, NFTs have been called everything from “a nerdy implementation of bragging rights” to digital certificates of authenticity.

Actors, musicians, athletes and even political campaigns have jumped into space and have aired all sorts of NFT-related digital nips. NFT trading volume grew rapidly, reaching $ 10.7 billion in the third quarter of 2021, according to analytics platform DappRadar.

In the art world, NFTs were quickly hyped to solve a variety of problems. They offered a way for artists to monetize digital art, ensure they could sell their work and even make money if their art was sold in the future. NFTs are not art in themselves, but rather digital deeds, certificates that can be linked to a work of art and then bought and sold as a representative of ownership.

But rapid growth has also opened the door to violent piracy and fraud. On most NFT platforms including OpenSea, by far the largest NFT marketplace, people can create an account and start selling the digital images they want to upload. Although it has helped OpenSea grow rapidly (the company announced on Tuesday that it had been valued at $ 13.3 billion in a recent round of funding), the platform is barely moderated, forcing artists to actively patrol OpenSea and its competitors to try to have their work taken down.

In an email, an OpenSea spokesman said: “We take theft seriously and have policies in place to meet our community obligations and deter theft on our platform,” and the company “is actively expanding our efforts across customer support , trust and security and site integrity. “

Although there is little data to illustrate exactly how common the problem is, there are some indications that it is widespread. One comes from DeviantArt, one of the Internet’s largest digital art platforms, which has started constantly scanning blockchains used by NFTs to alert users when copies of their work are displayed on NFT exchanges. DeviantArt has been sending warnings to thousands of artists since September, said Liat Gurwicz, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Warns from DeviantArt to Aja Trier that someone had made an NFT of her work.Aja Trier

»Art theft is nothing new. We just see it on a whole new scale with everything that has happened to NFTs, “Gurwicz said. Artists have to take matters into their own hands to get their work taken down, she said.

“Right now, we are not aware of other solutions that artists can use,” she said.

Currently, OpenSea’s process of reducing the sale of stolen images places most of the burden on artists. A seller does not have to provide proof of ownership or use their real name to start an auction, but an artist submitting a copyright notice must share personal information such as their real name and links proving that they are the correct one. owner of a work.

Ashli ​​Weiss, a Silicon Valley lawyer who has published a guide on how to send copyright notices to NFT marketplaces, said the burden on artists is exacerbated by the fact that many NFT thieves appear to be automated bots.

“These bots are not just looking for NFT art that is already imprinted, and they are trying to resell it,” Weiss said. “They go after artists who do not even know what an NFT is, and it honestly earns the counterfeit sellers a lot more money because they do not have people taking their work down.”

Although OpenSea tends to respond to removal requests, the actual idea of ​​copyright in the NFT area is difficult, said Brian Frye, professor of intellectual property at the University of Kentucky, who has sold his own art as NFTs.

Since an NFT is not an actual image, but rather a receipt or digital deed pointing to an image, selling it would not infringe an artist’s copyright, he said. Only the image uploaded to and hosted on OpenSea would.

“All [an NFT] is, is a URL that says “Look at this place on the internet,” Frye said.

“By asking someone to look at this URL, there is no infringement of copyright there because no original copyrighted item is being copied by anything,” he said. “So NFT in itself is just irrelevant to the issue.”

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