NFT Art Theft: What Buyers and Artists Need to Know

How to stop NFT scammers from taking advantage.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on Sep. 07, 2022
NFT Art Theft: What Buyers and Artists Need to Know
Image: Shutterstock / Built In

It didn’t take long for Canadian digital artist Qing Han to become internet famous. 

Better known by her screen name Qinni, Han gained a large following on Twitter and Instagram with her colorful anime-style illustrations. By 2020, she was one of the most prominent contributors on DeviantArt, a popular online art community that lets artists upload their work, monetize it and connect with followers. It was around this time when Han, a four-time open heart surgery survivor, received some devastating news.

“Got diagnosis today,” she tweeted in December of 2019. “Cancer, Stage 4, doc says I got about a year or a year and a half left.” Along with the message was some original artwork — a girl in the fetal position, crying, with a black wave on the verge of crashing on top of her. 

Less than two months later, at the age of 29, Han succumbed to her illness, leaving a wake of hundreds of thousands of mourning followers behind. To this day, people regularly leave messages of love and support on her DeviantArt page, cementing her legacy as both a talented artist and a beloved mentor to others. 

Sadly, that is not where Han’s story ends. Not even a year after her death, fraudsters began selling her art as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, for a profit. For instance, an account on NFT social marketplace Twinci listed one of Han’s most popular pieces “Bird Cage” — a piece depicting a girl’s ribs encasing an abundance of flowers and foliage, as well as a heart, which is in the shape of a small bird. Han had originally published it to social media when she was in the cardiac intensive care unit just a month before she died.

“That was, for many creators in our community, their introduction to NFTs. And our community was really heartbroken and devastated that anyone would abuse a creator and their work in that way,” Liat Gurwicz, DeviantArt’s chief marketing officer, told Built In. 

The unfortunate incident with Han’s art occurred just as the NFT wave was beginning to swell, and is perhaps one of the more abhorrent examples of a much larger problem in this burgeoning space. Just as celebrities, musicians, athletes and even long-forgotten brands have homed in on the promise of these digital gold mines, so too have the scammers — uploading art they didn’t create and don’t have the rights to onto NFT marketplaces, and selling it for a profit. 

Tips to Avoid NFT Art Theft

  1. Be sure to copyright your work. This gives you, the artist, the exclusive right to post and profit from your piece. 
  2. Communicate with your followers. Give them updates about when you’ve created new NFT art and where they can purchase it. Or, if you don’t want to mint your art at all, make sure your community knows that. 
  3. Safeguard your digital art from thieves by using services like Adobe’s Content Credentials and DeviantArt’s Protect. And stay up-to-date when new services come out.
  4. Speak up. If you find out your artwork has been stolen and minted as an NFT, let the marketplace it is being sold on know. You can also use the DMCA process to have it removed from whatever website it was posted to.

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Where There Is NFT Art, There Is Plagiarism

In response to the theft of Han’s work, and the rampant pilfering of digital art DeviantArt was witnessing across Web3, the 22-year-old company decided to expand its existing Protect tool to include NFTs. Users can upload copies of their art to the image recognition tool, and have it matched against several public blockchains and marketplaces. If a match is detected, they’ll receive an alert and can send a takedown request.

Protect appears to have been a success so far. It scans nine different blockchains, and in just one year has indexed more than 480 million minted NFTs, identifying some 390,000 infringements along the way, according to Gurwicz. But it’s going to take a lot more than that if we want to bring widespread NFT art theft to an end, she added. 

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how widespread this problem is, but it’s safe to say that plagiarism and the NFT art world go hand in hand. Earlier this year OpenSea, one of the largest NFT marketplaces (last valued at more than $13 billion) admitted in a Twitter thread that more than 80 percent of the artwork created on its site were “plagiarized works, fake collections and spam.”

“This is not something that we can [solve] on our own,” Gurwicz said. “Everyone serving the creator community … needs to work together and start putting in infrastructure and better checks and balances to ensure that there will be trust and safety.”

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How Does NFT Art Theft Happen?

To understand how NFT art theft can happen in the first place, it’s important to understand how NFTs themselves work in the context of Web3 — the internet’s latest iteration that promises to give control and ownership back to the user, without the need for corporations to act as intermediaries, with the help of blockchain technology.

NFTs are encrypted digital links that are stored on a given blockchain, offering a singular, irreplicable means of identifying the owner. Any digital object can be an NFT, so long as it’s been minted, or published on the blockchain. They can be everything from music and play-to-earn games to homes

But the most popular use for NFTs right now is as a means of buying and selling digital artwork, which can be a very lucrative business. CryptoPunks, a 10,000-piece collection of 8-bit portraits that are widely considered to be the first NFTs, are worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars a pop. And digital artist Michael Joseph Winklemann, professionally known as Beeple, became one of the top three most valuable living artists when one of his NFTs sold for a whopping $69 million in 2021. 

The whole system is predicated on the understanding that the people minting NFTs are who they say they are. As they exist today, NFTs are ledgers, providing a clear and direct history of who bought and sold a given asset. They’re a means of tracking and authenticity or ownership history of a given image, and the creator often retains the copyright, which means they can earn royalties from future sales of work in perpetuity. But that only happens after it has been minted. The challenge lies in the time before that image hits the blockchain. 

“Without that sort of capture of the artwork provenance that happens before it’s minted, you only have half the story,” Will Allen, a former VP of Product at Adobe, told Built In. During his time at Adobe, he co-founded the Content Authenticity Initiative to better protect digital artists from theft, and rolled out its Content Credentials feature as a way to help artists protect the authenticity of their work 

“Provenance is incredibly important,” Allen continued, particularly when it comes to artists getting credited appropriately for their work. “Without that sort of foundation of truth, we’re rudderless.”

“They’re taking the artwork from someone, without authorization, and making money off of it.”

Here is where theft occurs. Anyone can mint an NFT, even if they don’t own the copyright to the content they’re minting, so people can take a screenshot of other people’s artwork and sell it as their own. And there’s no way to really stop it from happening. The decentralized nature of Web3 means people can create an account anonymously using a crypto wallet and immediately begin minting, without showing any proof of ownership.

“This is infringement because, as the person who minted the NFT, I do not have authorization to use someone else’s artwork and sell it as my own. And that’s what’s happening here,” attorney Ashli Weiss told Built In. “They’re taking the artwork from someone, without authorization, and making money off of it.”

Much of this infringement is happening at the hands of bots, which scrape artists’ online galleries and create collections with auto-generated texts — making it all the more difficult to get this issue under control.

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The Quest to Legitimize the NFT Art Trade

Weiss spent much of her career as an intellectual property attorney, focusing on matters related to copyright and trademarks for major brands like Tory Burch and Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. She now runs her own firm, working primarily with blockchain companies and individual digital artists — including those who sell NFTs — whose work is being stolen online. 

“The difficulties that many artists are coming up against is they just don’t know how to remove infringement of their artwork when it’s minted as an NFT,” Weiss said. So, she created a guide for how artists can send copyright infringement notices to NFT marketplaces, which includes step-by-step instructions, specific language to use in the claim, and contact information for each marketplace.

Weiss said fraudulent NFTs are comparable to the counterfeit products often found on marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. In Web 2.0, if a buyer sees a pair of fake Adidas sneakers being sold on Amazon, it is up to the brand (in this case Adidas) to ask Amazon to remove them. Amazon also has its own level of responsibility in that it has to make sure that its sellers are legitimate businesses — a process known as brand gating. Before anyone can sell products on Amazon, they have to apply and provide their personal information. If they are caught selling counterfeit products, their account can get revoked. 

As it stands today, no such system exists in the world of Web3. OpenSea recently rolled out new security features to protect users from NFT scams, but for the most part the burden is on artists to keep an eye on things and flag incidents of theft — a massive undertaking considering just how many NFT marketplaces there are out there. This makes tools like DeviantArt Protect all the more important.

“Safety measures need to be put in place, both for creators and anyone, really. Brands, creators — anyone who holds IP or copyright,” CMO Gurwicz said. This extends to buyers as well, who can also be victims in all of this. “A lot of buyers innocently think that they’re buying something legitimate and end up buying fraudulent or spam content.”

To help, DeviantArt also created the Protect Protocol, which allows anyone to check any NFT contract to see if it has any IP infringement claims against it. Gurwicz likens DeviantArt’s Protect Protocol to what an SSL certificate does for Web 2.0 sites — it legitimizes the NFT, and offers a safety measure potential buyers can take to ensure they are buying it from a legitimate source. 

 

It Takes a Village to Protect NFT Art

If we want to stop NFT art theft going forward, buyers need to be more responsible and take some extra steps to make sure they are buying legitimate NFTs, Gurwicz said. “It just takes a little bit more homework before you actually buy something,” she added. “Check who that NFT is coming from. Is it a verified account? Is it linked to an official website and official social channels? Just dive a little deeper under the surface and make sure that you’re actually buying from the creator and that it is from the person that they say they are. That will go a long way.”

At the end of the day, though, Gurwicz thinks the onus should be on the marketplaces themselves to solve the problem of NFT art theft. “If you are a platform that serves creators, and essentially makes your living from working with creators, then you have a responsibility to them to protect them and their work.”

Adobe’s Allen agrees, comparing marketplaces to physical art galleries.

“If you are a platform that serves creators, and essentially makes your living from working with creators, then you have a responsibility to them to protect them and their work.”

“If you go to a physical art gallery, you assume that there’s some level of curation that’s happening there. And if it’s a total free-for-all, fine. But let people know that it’s a total free-for-all,” Allen said. “If you are making your entire business by buying and selling NFT artwork, you have to at least provide the purchasers some level of assurance that you’ve done some level of vetting on this.”

In practice, Weiss said this means marketplaces need to create “their own version of brand gating.” This means collecting users’ personal information like name and contact information in the event of any copyright infringement allegations, and then cross checking the information provided to make sure it is accurate and that it isn’t a bot. There also needs to be a “deterrent,” she added, so that fraudulent sellers aren’t tempted to keep reoffending if their account is removed.

In the end, less theft and fraud isn’t just good news for individual artists, buyers or companies, but the entire Web3 community — the success of which hinges on whether or not people trust it enough to use it.

“Web3 holds so much promise for creators. It’s supposed to empower them and allow them, for the first time really, to be able to build true equity from their work,” Gurwicz said. “In the long run, I think the success of Web3 will depend very much on the adoption of creators. And the Web3 ecosystem needs to do more to support creators and ensure that they are safe and their work is safe.”

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Tips to Avoid NFT Art Theft

For all the good that can come from NFTs in the art world, there is also a high amount of theft. Of course, this isn’t new. For as long as there have been artists and creators, there have been people who have tried to forge and imitate their work. But the unique, decentralized nature of Web3 makes it exceptionally difficult for artists to keep NFT art theft under control. 

Still, here are some tips to help protect your creations.

 

Be Sure to Copyright Your Work

A copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects an original work of authorship or artwork (including digital artwork) from being used or profited off of without the creator’s permission. Copyrighting your work can be a good deterrent against thieves. Or, at the very least, it can be a form of proof that you can point to in the event your work gets stolen. 

You can also take it a step further and add a watermark, or digital signature, over your work to ensure further protection. “Things like watermarks and information about yourself on the image itself adds another layer of protection,” Gurwicz said.

 

Communicate With Your Followers

If you’re a digital artist, odds are you have a social media presence, and post your work on platforms like Instagram, DeviantArt, Dribbble and even your own website. Make sure that you keep a close eye on those platforms, and communicate regularly with your fellow artists and followers. Give them updates on when you’ve created new NFT art and where they can purchase it. Or, if you do not want to mint your art on the blockchain at all, make sure your community knows that. 

“If you’re telling your customers right out the gate, ‘You will never find my artwork minted as an NFT,’ then your customer will never purchase digital artwork as an NFT from you,” Weiss said. Plus, they will know to reach out to you if they see your work as an NFT. “Keeping that door of communication open is critical.”

 

Safeguard Your Art From Thieves

Use services that will help protect your art from thieves, a couple of which we’ve discussed in this article:

Adobe’s Content Credentials allows creators to attach a provenance, or pedigree, to whatever image, video or audio file they created using an Adobe product — providing a complete history for where that file was created, how it was created and any other facts needed to establish what for VP of Product Allen calls a “base-layer of truth” that society can then attach value to as they see fit.

“It’s not going to solve it completely, but it’s another tool in the arsenal to help fight that amount of fraud,” he said. Providing purchasers with proof that an image was created on Photoshop, for example, then brought on-chain by that same creator “completes the story of provenance, which is so critical for physical art,” he added. “We think that’s been sort of missing in the digital art and NFT space.”

Meanwhile, DeviantArt’s Protect tool can be used by artists to figure out if any of their artwork has been stolen and minted as an NFT. “The blockchain is essentially decentralized, it’s open. So we can scan NFTs that are minted on the blockchain, and use that same technology to let our users know if we find a newly minted NFT that matches their work,” Gurwicz explained.

And there are new tools coming out all the time. “It’s such a fast-growing domain,” Weiss said. “It’s something that is here to stay. So if you are an artist, it is very important that you keep up to date with the technology.”

 

Speak Up

If you find out your artwork has been stolen and minted as an NFT, use the DMCA process to have it removed from whatever website it was posted to. “Any platform that’s hosting content online must follow the DMCA regulations,” Gurwicz said. “So if you do find that your work has been infringed, reach out immediately and just follow the DMCA process to have that content removed.”

Each NFT marketplace also has its own protocol for reporting copyright infringement, as indicated in Weiss’ NFT Marketplace Enforcement Guide, so be sure to communicate with the marketplace directly if you spot theft.

This isn’t only for when your own artwork is stolen either. If you suspect someone else’s work is being sold as an NFT fraudulently, let the artist know. 

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