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Digital Bandits: The New Art Thieves Selling Stolen Works As NFTs

It may not be as cinematic as a museum heist, but this new form of art theft is quickly becoming a lucrative criminal payday that negatively affects pretty much any artist who posts their work online

Over the course of a decade, 32-year-old RJ Palmer built a career as a digital artist in the gaming world. But while working various gigs for video-game companies like Ubisoft, he also grew an audience of his own by uploading his artwork to online galleries, selling merchandise and prints in the process.

Basically, everything was more or less going according to plan — until the morning he woke up to a flood of notifications from the online gallery DeviantArt. “Pretty much all my work was stolen, dating back to something I made in 2008,” Palmer tells me. “Someone went to DeviantArt, took a ton of my work, minted all the images as NFTs and uploaded them to OpenSea.” 

For the unfamiliar, NFTs are “non-fungible tokens,” which purportedly show proof of ownership or authenticity of digital content via the blockchain, and OpenSea is the “King of the NFT Market” for buying and selling NFTs using cryptocurrency. Without getting too far into the impenetrable NFT weeds, when someone buys an NFT for digital content, they’re buying a token that represents the artwork, which is often a link to the website that hosts the image. 

All of which gives rise to a whole slew of questions regarding the intrinsic value of an NFT — like what exactly you own when you purchase an NFT and whether or not NFTs are rendered completely worthless if the site hosting the content goes offline. But in Palmer’s case, the art thieves had an upper hand because the system allows anyone to create an NFT of any image, regardless of whether they created the content or own the IP. And without any semblance of regulation, thousands of artists like Palmer have found themselves the victims of digital art heists on a daily basis. In fact, per DeviantArt’s company blog, its stolen art NFT detection tool spotted more than 11,000 pieces of pilfered artwork on OpenSea between July and September. 

“Everybody at every level of art is getting their stuff stolen,” Palmer tells me. “And it turns out, my stuff had been getting stolen for years; I just didn’t know about it. Someone had just sourced a bunch of art from DeviantArt, from all sorts of artists, and of course none of us knew, because why would we?”

“It’s just become part of the job with the internet — if you do cool stuff, people are going to want to take it,” he continues. “But if somebody’s going to sell a shirt or print with my artwork on it, at least they have to have access to some sort of means of production, which slows the whole process down. With NFTs, though, they don’t need a printer or T-shirt press. They just need to steal your image and then they’re set. It’s fucked.” 

Artists often take to Reddit and Twitter with exasperated pleas for guidance after discovering that their work has been stolen and posted to an NFT marketplace. “Some of the 3D art I made and put on Instagram was put on Rarible [another NFT marketplace] and sold without my permission,” writes redditor wilder_beast in a post on the NFT subreddit. “They minted 21 copies and sold two, [Rarible] returned the money and transferred [the] rest of the art back to me, but the artwork they made is very special to me and didn’t wish to sell at all. What can I do about this?”

To answer wilder_beast’s question, the process of trying to get artwork removed from NFT trading platforms certainly isn’t easy (not surprisingly, the platforms themselves have largely avoided taking any responsibility in verifying authenticity or preventing fraud). “Once you get notified by DeviantArt, you have to contact OpenSea and get them to delete it,” Palmer tells me. “The problem with that is, the ‘report’ button OpenSea installed on the actual NFT product page doesn’t do anything, so I had to find an email to get them to respond, which has actually worked so far.” 

Others aren’t so lucky. In the case of artist Brittany Fanning, multiple requests to OpenSea to have her stolen artwork removed were ignored, as were her attempts to report the image as fraudulent with the aforementioned report button. According to her account on Reddit, it was only after she found and messaged the thief himself that the post was taken down. “I think [the thief] only took it down after I found his phone number,” she wrote. “OpenSea is useless.” 

Moreover, Palmer adds, “People can steal the same image again. There are no safeguards in place to stop this,” pointing to a piece he reported this morning that hasn’t been removed yet. 

Click over to the month-old OpenSea profile of the person who stole Palmer’s work, and you’ll find that they’ve uploaded hundreds of other stolen pieces of artwork, many selling for upwards of $4,000. “This is the typical type of account that steals my stuff, just scams all the way down,” Palmer explains. “They’ll just search ‘werewolf’ and scrape every drawing of a werewolf ever uploaded to DeviantArt and try to sell it as an NFT. They just want to make money so they get thousands of images, mint them all as cheap NFTs, then hope that maybe a dozen of them sell. That’s how they make a quick buck.” 

“Even if they don’t end up selling anything, the whole thing is frustrating,” he continues. “I just don’t want some anonymous scammer to have the opportunity to make money off of my work in the first place. It’s just such a fuckin’ scam, and one that I never thought I’d have to deal with, let alone almost every day now.” 

Ultimately, though, it’s not the internet art thieves that keep Palmer up at night. Instead, it’s the prospect of NFTs becoming the art-world norm. “The whole thing feels powered by the notion of Silicon Valley trying to ‘disrupt’ something that doesn’t need disrupting,” he tells me. “And in many ways they’ve already succeeded. The whole thing has torn the art community apart, and made everything more convoluted.”

To be sure, Palmer isn’t alone in that thinking. “The minting of NFTs without artists’ permission has the potential to destroy how we as a society value creativity,” the Design and Artists Copyright Society wrote in a statement to Artnet News. “As the art market evolves with new and emerging technology such as NFTs, we must ensure that we protect both the creative, intellectual and moral rights of artists.” 

“What if younger artists see these stupid low-quality pieces selling for so much money and decide to pursue the quick profits from those instead of working on different skills, developing more interesting ideas or getting into the games industry?” Palmer asks. “That’s what really worries me.”