Jillian C. York didn’t want to be a non-fungible token.
A Berlin-based author and activist, York is also director of international free speech at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. For some reason – York disagrees with his inclusion there – his name also appears on a list of so-called cypherpunks on Wikipedia. Cypherpunks stand for security, encryption, privacy – three things York supported but never made its main focus.
“Of course, I can’t opt out of this list and I don’t identify as a cypherpunk, despite the fact that I advocated for crypto,” she said. Because she follows Wikipedia’s editing rules, York was technically forced into a group she didn’t want to join.
On Christmas Eve 2021, however, York and a number of security advocates and cypherpunks from this list appeared as NFTs in the OpenSea token market. The tokens included artist renditions of each of the cypherpunks and the York map featured his signature buzzcut emerging from what looked like a background of circuitry and fingerprints. She was now part of another group she didn’t want to join: those whose art or work had been stolen to make NFTs. She was outraged. First, the photo used by the creators was copyrighted and not his property.
Second, they misspelled his name.
The card, based on a photograph taken by a professional photographer, featured Jillion York’s name. Additionally, alongside York and his colleagues, the NFT collection featured outcasts in the security space like Richard Stallman and Jacob Appelbaum. York and several other people depicted on the cards wanted nothing to do with them.
“I don’t approve of this at all and would like it removed,” tweeted York on December 26. Many other supporters and victims have appeared with similar comments. A back-and-forth with OpenSea and the creator of NFTs, a company called ItsBlockchain, has responded to requests to remove all NFTs.
Many have seen the irony of having to visit a central location to destroy a decentralized asset.
“Quite absurd and distressing that, in the new realm of Web3 digital property rights, people can have their identities tokenized, without their consent, and sold as a tradable commodity for the benefit of others”, wrote Jacob Silverman, editor of the New Republic.
York’s ordeal was over almost as soon as it began. NFT creator Hitesh Malviya contacted York and others and agreed to take down the footage. Within days they were gone, replaced by a Medium post in which Malviya wrote that her team wanted to “educate the young crypto community about Cypher Punks and their importance to the evolution of blockchain technology to this day.”
“Unfortunately, many Cypher Punks were against this idea and didn’t want to participate in any way,” he wrote. “So we apologize to every Cypher Punk for not taking their consent and creating your NFTs.”
Malviya was petulant when I asked him about NFTs and why he thought he could use private photos and information – basically someone’s art – for this lucrative business.
“We weren’t aware of the look-alike laws in NFTs because the market is unregulated,” he said in a direct message. “And we spent three months of resources and time creating an educational series and this NFT collection. We have learned our lessons. Hope you got your answers. No further comments.”
York’s situation and the resulting uproar of comments is part of a growing and confusing part of Web3: when everything is permissionless, when do you need permission to use face, art or someone’s data? And, more importantly, what’s stopping bad actors from turning everything from your t-shirt design to even your naked body into NFT?
Unfortunately, York’s situation is not new and creates an entirely new industry and chain of tools aimed at protecting creators from NFT creators who get rich quick.
Another big NFT heist happened in April 2021 when the work of artist Qing Han aka Quinni was stolen and reposted on the same platform York was using, OpenSea. Quinni, beloved by fans for her artistic take on health and chronic disease, died of cancer in February 2020. After her death, her brother and fellow artist, Ze Han, maintained her social media accounts and published his work.
A year later, thieves posted Quinni’s work anonymously. After fan outcry, the art was pulled from various NFT sites, including OpenSea, and as of this writing, everything has ostensibly been pulled from the blockchain. His brother refuses to participate in NFTs after the theft.
“A reminder to report that any Qinni artwork is being sold without permission,” Ze Han wrote on Twitter. “There are no legitimate avenues where Qinni’s art is sold (this may change in the future).”
This case forced many creators to train in NFTs. The developers have created a number of tools that help creators, many of whom have no interest in cryptocurrency at all, to find their stolen art while Twitter feeds appeared to highlight flights.
A major figure in the online sharing community, DeviantArt, is no stranger to wholesale art theft.
“We host over half a billion pieces of art on the platform,” said Liat Karpel Gurwicz, CMO of DeviantArt. “Over the years we have been faced with thefts and this is nothing new. It’s something we’ve always dealt with as an online art community even before there was any real regulation about it.
More recently, the company created a bot that searches for user art on the blockchain. The bot compares art on popular NFT sites like OpenSea with images from registered users. Using machine learning, the bot finds artwork that looks similar to artwork already posted on DA’s servers. It also streamlines the withdrawal process, showing artists how to contact Opensea and other vendors.
DeviantArt COO Moti Levy said the system does not yet distinguish between art posted by legitimate owners and hijackers.
“If we find something that matches nearly identically, we’ll update our users,” he said. “In some cases, it could be their NFT. We don’t know who hit him.
The company is experiencing success with the tool. DeviantArt Protect has already found 80,000 possible infringement cases with a 300% increase in notifications sent between November and mid-December 2021. The company has also added anti-bot tools that prevent NFT creators from creating entire collections of art as NFT.
Ironically, decentralized marketplaces selling NFTs are beginning to centralize around one or two vendors. One of the most popular, OpenSea, has a full teardown team dedicated to situations like York or Quinni.
The company took off, hitting a stratospheric valuation of $13 billion after a $300 million round in early January. The company is by far the largest player in the NFT market, with approximately 1.26 million active users and over 80 million NFTs. According to DappRadar, the platform recorded $3.27 billion in transactions over the past 30 days and handled 2.33 million transactions. Its nearest competitor, Rarible, had $14.92 million in transactions over the same period.
OpenSea has been open about its place in the ecosystem and says it handles artist takedown requests as quickly as possible.
“It is against our policy to sell NFTs that violate the publicity rights of others,” an OpenSea spokesperson said. “We routinely enforce this in a number of ways, including removing and banning accounts when we are made aware that use of a likeness is not permitted.”
Interestingly, the company also appears to be cracking down on deep fakes or, as OpenSea calls it, non-consensual intimate images (NCII), an issue that has yet to surface but could become pernicious for influencers and stars. medias.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for NCII,” they said. “NFTs using NCII or similar images (including images doctored to look like someone they are not) are prohibited, and we are moving quickly to ban accounts that post this material. We are actively expanding our efforts to through customer support, trust and safety, and site integrity so we can act faster to protect and empower our community and creators.
OpenSea’s efforts have not satisfied many artists, many of whom were already skeptical of NFTs before seeing their own work and that of their colleagues hijacked on their platform. Many users still find their art on OpenSea and when they complain publicly they are flooded with support scammers who claim to be the official representatives of platforms like OpenSea.
Due to this mess, DeviantArt’s Levy said the company is exploring NFTs but refuses to offer them at this time. In fact, he thinks his users don’t want it.
“Long term, we think Web3 is interesting and has potential, but for us, it should be done in a better way and in a way that protects artists and empowers them, not in a way that endangers.”