I published this piece on NFT theft for Motherboard (VICE) on August 18, 2021. If you’re interested in working with me as a crypto writer and/or consultant, please get in touch.

DeviantArt, once a safe refuge for artists to display art and mingle online, has recently become the go-to place for crypto profiteers to steal art and sell them as NFTs.

In a bid to stop people’s art from being sold as a blockchain collectible for potentially a lot of money, the platform has just launched an AI-powered tool to raise alarm bells when one of its members’ artwork is found to be tokenized by someone else and sold on one of several major NFT marketplaces.

It’s a bizarre problem. The ability to monetize digital art through NFTs has recently led to many artists finding their artworks ripped off and tokenized.

“I searched my name to make sure my art hadn’t been stolen and turned into NFTs, and sure thing, an obscure old piece from my DeviantArt is randomly on the front page of the marble cards NFT website?,” Devin Elle Kurtz, an artist and visual developer, tweeted in March, the peak days of the NFT frenzy. “How is this allowed…”

Liat Karpel Gurwicz, chief marketing officer of DeviantArt, told Motherboard that the expansion of DeviantArt’s protection tool to cover NFTs came after a devastating period for the community. Qing Han, a “well-known and beloved” artist best known as Qinni, passed away in February 2020 and had her art stolen and sold as NFTs. “And it was at that point that we felt that we needed to look into what we could do to offer our artists protection, beyond just our own platform,” Gurwicz said.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens,  are cryptographic signatures stored on the blockchain that are supposed to prove ownership of the digital work in question. Its immutable record of ownership and provenance has convinced crypto investors to pay huge sums of money to claim ownership to a jpeg. Even if it’s just a rock jpeg based on free clipart.

“You thought scamcoins were bad, just wait for scam jpegs,” Jamis Johnson of PleasrDAO, a crypto collective that invests millions of dollars in NFTs, told Motherboard.

​​”A generalized tool for identifying NFTs that infringe on artists’ rights is absolutely needed and will simultaneously protect retail from the inevitable wave of fraud that’s coming,” he said.

“When I created my collection Voice note Art(c), I copyrighted to protect my art style that hadn’t been created before,” Amrita Sethi, an artist who turns her voice into NFTs, told Motherboard. “I believe artists need to be vigilant to copyright infringement.” 

DeviantArt said in a blog post that artists can focus on creating because its AI will do the detective work and “scan public blockchains and third-party marketplaces for potential art infringements.” The platform will also deploy an army of human moderators so as not to leave the final word to AI since automated image detection technology can so easily mess up. If a near-identical match is detected, users will get a notification on the site. 

“There are things that a human’s eyes are still able to differentiate better than the machine. And [a piece of art] can be similar, but not necessarily the same. Or an artist might choose to allow their art to be used by a fellow artist or create a variant of it,” Gurwicz said, adding that the tool was successful in identifying potential infringement 86 percent of the time in the first two months of beta testing.

Once alerted to shameless tokenization, artists will need to file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown request.

“But it will perpetually be difficult to police a technology that is built on the idea of permissionlessness—the idea that anyone can deploy whatever they want, anonymously,” Johnson said. In other words, taking down an NFT artwork off a platform can’t modify what’s already recorded on the chain. 

Glendon Mellow, an illustrator, said DeviantArt’s new feature is a “very welcome tool,” but added that he is skeptical that it will address the real issue at stake, which is proof of ownership in art. After all, online art theft preceded NFTs and remains a massive issue outside of crypto. “Artists already deal with this on sites like Redbubble or Society6 that allow prints of art to be sold, without decent checks on who created an image,” he told Motherboard.

“This tool basically gives artists a bigger tool with which to play whack-a-mole when our stuff is ripped off.”

I published this piece on NFT theft for Motherboard (VICE) on August 18, 2021. If you’re interested in working with me as a crypto writer and/or consultant, please get in touch.