In late 2020 I was genuinely excited about the crypto-art scene. I had many conversations with other creators about how NFTs could “create digital scarcity”, “prove who created a piece of art”, and “eliminate plagiarism”.
I started working on my first NFT project, but as I researched it more, I saw that artists and fans were already dealing with problems caused by this tech.
By March 2021 it was clear that NFTs did not do any of the things that people claimed. I started documenting those issues in this Twitter thread:
I decided not to get into NFTs, but I kept a close eye on the space throughout 2021. Along with the boom in crypto-art there was a massive rise in plagiarism, scams, and fraud. OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, admitted that about 80% of the NFTs on their site were plagiarized or fraudulent. Online art theft was so bad that DeviantArt launched a tool to help detect when a user’s art was being used without permission on other sites. Within a few months of tracking, they had sent out over 100,000 notifications to users who had art stolen and reposted on an NFT marketplace. That number was far higher than the plagiarism DeviantArt had found on other sites like Redbubble or Amazon.
So I started an anonymous twitter account called “NFT Thefts” to document the effects NFTs were having on artists and fans. This account quickly garnered nearly 19,000 followers and was frequently cited as a resource in major publications and viral videos. For example, our account was cited several times in Dan Olson’s “Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs” video, which has currently reached over 10 million views in the past year!
At the time I started the account, NFT proponents were still pushing the myth that plagiarism was non-existent in the space. NFT Thefts proved that the problem was real and huge. The biggest criticism of NFTs at the time was how utterly wasteful they were (and many continue to be). That environmental criticism was valid, but it also seemed to miss the bigger issue: NFTs don’t do any of the things people claim they do. So they were wasteful AND useless.
It was clear from the beginning that NFTs didn’t prove anything about a piece of art, AND they were bad for the environment. The later, it turns out, was a fixable issue. The former is still as true as ever.
A community hub for artists
Along with documenting the problem, the NFT Thefts account also became a community hub. We started publishing tutorials on how artists could get stolen work removed from NFT market places.
When marketplaces, like OpenSea, stopped accepting valid takedown notices, we spotlighted the issue until they changed their policies.
a quick note about corporate censorship: if you look at the original tweet, you might notice that it will show you a content warning that says "The following media includes potentially sensitive content." When several twitter users shared their personal experiences and complaints about OpenSea's illegal/anti-artist policies, someone reported those tweets to Twitter under false premises. As a result, many of OpenSea's critics had their twitter accounts permanently flagged/silenced and STILL haven't had those false reports reversed. You can click on the links yourself to see there is no questionable content, it was just criticism about OpenSea. Even NFTtheft's account was temporarily banned on twitter due to false reports filed by some malicious entity. Our ban was lifted, but it appears that most of the other accounts that specifically called out OpenSea are still flagged. These are the type of shitty companies and tactics that absolutely dominate the web3 space, and a larger reason I kept the identity behind NFTtheft anonymous. Fuck these web3 assholes, how can anyone support companies that do shit like this?
More Examples of the harm NFTs have caused fans and artists
- DeviantArt has detected at least 390K stolen pieces of art on NFT marketplaces.
- NFT art-scraping is a huge problem for ALL sites though. Instagram, Twitter, and even Minecraft forums. If it can be downloaded, scammers will try to sell it as an NFT.
- The MAJORITY of NFTs on OpenSea are plagiarized or a scam.
- When NFT projects get caught scamming, they often use their large (and financially invested) patrons to attack their critics. Here’s a thread of examples.
- Scammers and cryptobros use NFTs as a way to extort or harass artists ??
In the News
For me, the way to advocate for artists and their fans was to shine a light on the harms that blockchain technology was causing. As part of this I participated in dozens of interviews and was an uncredited consultant on at least a dozen more. Many times for very large publications. Here are some of the places that I was interviewed about the problems inherent in blockchain art and NFTs:
- The Verge- “The counterfeit NFT problem is only getting worse”
- Hyperallergic- “Artists Say Plagiarized NFTs Are Plaguing Their Community”
- Wall Street Journal- “OpenSea’s NFT Free-for-All” (NFT Thefts was a source and helped put the author in touch with artists)
- Mashable- “How to report plagiarized NFTs as stolen art”
- Usbek & Rica- “NFT: the outdated dream of a feminist and inclusive blockchain” (This is an important article in a French publication about how web3 users were using the blockchain to harass and intimidate women)
- Fortune- “An IP lawyer explains what counts as NFT theft when ‘stealing’ is as easy as right-click and save”
- Wired- “The Future Of NFTs Lies With The Courts”
- Decrypt- “NFTs Have a Problem With Copyright Theft”
- Wired- “Why OpenSea’s NFT Marketplace Can’t Win”
- Neil Turkewitz- Interview with NFTthefts (a follow up to his “2021: The Year of NFT” article)
- PetaPixel- “As Theft Thrives, Artists Say OpenSea Does Little to Protect Copyrights”
- The Information- “Crypto’s Town Square Has Become ‘a Scammer’s Paradise’”
- upstart- “Art theft in the NFT world”
- The Guardian- “‘Huge mess of theft and fraud:’ artists sound alarm as NFT crime proliferates” (NFTtheft was an uncredited source on this. I answered for the reporter and helped put them in touch with artists for the story)
Why I Stopped Posting To @NFTtheft
I believe that NFT Thefts had a huge impact on the conversation around NFTs. We proved they weren’t working as intended.
I stopped updating the NFT Thefts twitter account in July of 2022. At this point the NFT fad (and cryptocurrency boom) had dried up. But that’s not why I stopped. In fact I still see artists messaging NFT Thefts about stolen art.
What made me stop was overwhelming replies and direct messages I got from victims of fraud. They had read the mainstream hype about the “future of art”, but soon fell victim to a wallet hack or scam. So many desperate people begging NFT Thefts to help in some way. I kept trying to help these fraud victims, but it got too overwhelming for me. Stolen cryptocurrencies/NFTs is extremely common in this space and there really is no way to ever recover those stolen assets.
I also saw that people who had been ripped off, whether it was from a rugpull project or from buying plagiarized NFTs, remained in the space. Often getting scammed again and again. These people definitely seemed like gambling addicts and were unwilling or unable to stop.
It was all too depressing, and I just got tired of watching it happen. At this point, everyone seems to know the problems with NFTs. Most artists have decided it wasn’t worth getting involved in. Some artists seem to know, but still think it will work out in their favor. That sucks, but hopefully consumers are now educated enough to know that NFTs aren’t worth “investing” in.
Has The Problem With NFTs Been Solved?
Over the years, several blockchain devs and new start-ups have reached out to me, offering to help solve the problems within the NFT space. Their hearts might be in the right place, but adding additional layers of tech on top of the blockchain will not solve this problem because proving the authenticity of a piece of art will never be a problem that the blockchain can solve. This isn’t an issue unique to NFTs, plagiarism can exist in any medium, but the difference here is that NFTs are built around the myth that the can do something impossible.
So why is plagiarism so much worse in the NFT market?
- The blockchain makes it easier for scammers to remain anonymous.
- It’s practically impossible for victims to recoup lost assets after a scam has happened.
- People who buy cryptocurrency are easy targets looking to make quick cash without doing much research.
In other words, selling NFTs will always attract scammers because of the low risk and high return.
The blockchain community thinks they can weed out the bad actors through the magic of capitalism. “Fake NFTs will go away on their own, because nobody would want to waste their money on fake art.” That makes sense, right? The cryptomarket should be pretty good at regulating out bad actors and worthless NFT projects, right? Right?!
It turns out the blockchain community is terrible at weeding out scams. They just fucking suck at it, especially when they’ve already bought into a project. For example, a project called HypefriendsNFT stole some beautiful artwork from a young French artist and built an NFT project around it. That project had about 2,000 fans who had bought into the project, even though it only had one single piece of art. When we showed the Hypefriends community that the art was undeniably stolen, the NFT creators called it FUD. “FUD” stands for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” and is often used in the NFT space as a way to drown out critics.
This wasn’t an isolated case. It happens again and again. In fact, it happened when Crypto Chicks, one of the largest NFT projects in the space, got caught using stolen art as the basis for their entire collection:
How did the market react to this shocking revelation? Well, there was a slight drop in Crypto Chicks sales in March, when the plagiarism scandal was made public, but it quickly bounced back as if nothing ever happened.
So has the NFT space finally stopped plagiarism? No. As the chart above shows, the only thing that finally weeds out the crypto scammers is when the crypto market crashes.
Let me say that again:
The only thing that can stop plagiarism in the NFT space is the inevitable crash of the entire crypto market.-Doctor M. Popular
Despite all the hype, the self-regulation, and all the startups attempting to add additional layers of verification on top of an already bloated piece of tech, the only thing that keeps artists from getting ripped off is the inevitable crash of cryptocurrency. If/when crypto sees another hype cycle, this art plagiarism will start back up again. It’s just too easy and profitable for scammers to avoid.
On a final note, I wanted to say thanks to all of the folks who helped along the way. There were many folks like Martin and Neil that provided a lot of useful support to artists who had been dealing with NFT related plagiarism.
There were also many individuals who chose to stay anonymous, but helped run the account when things got really hectic. Thanks for helping behind the scenes, y’all! This account would probably have gone dark a lot earlier without your help.