How Indian NFT Platforms are Tackling Plagiarism and Art Theft
By Neerja Deodhar | Apr 8 2022 · 10 min read
From social-media vetting to strict redressal systems and legal counsel, here’s how Indian NFT art platforms are addressing plagiarism and piracy threats on their platforms
The blue and gold magic of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) is the tapestry upon which New York-based artist Aja Trier imagines just about anything—from the happy faces of dogs to a dinosaur. In one piece, a cat is surrounded by fireflies. The serenity of her art is in stark contrast to what she experienced on 5 January 2022: Trier woke up to the news that her art was stolen and sold a whopping 86,000 times on an NFT marketplace. What followed was the impossible task of filing an equal number of takedown requests—and giving up when she realised that this would take weeks. “Protecting my IP is like trying to shovel snow in a blizzard with a spoon,” Trier tweeted.
The true cost of plagiarism in art is difficult to determine. Artists stand to lose more than just financially. In the digital art world, and by extension the NFT art world, cases of plagiarism have caused industry watchers to raise questions about whether artists’ interests are being adequately protected. It’s not uncommon for digital artists who have not yet ventured into the crypto art space to find their work being stolen and sold on a platform. Artists can find themselves fighting against an army of bots who mint their art many times over on different platforms. What contributes to the issue is that by design, the seller of the NFT remains anonymous.
“NFTs can be created without permissions from the owners. NFTs can infringe on copyrights even when created with the owner’s consent, depending on the owner’s relationship with the artist. Thus, it purely depends on the contract between the owner and the buyer,” says lawyer Debottam Bose, whose practice is focused on art, philanthropy and their intersections. Bose, however, asserts that legal recourse lies within the existing Indian copyright laws.
Blockchains were seen as an empowering, democratic platform for artists because of their very nature, but unchecked plagiarism is undoing some of this good. The scale of the issue matches the sophistry of its perpetrators. In January 2022, OpenSea, one of the biggest NFT marketplaces, tweeted that 80 percent of the items on its website were found to be “plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.” It offered this detail as an explanation for the 50-item limit it set on its free minting tool — a decision that was ultimately reversed.
The conversation around plagiarism in the NFT art world cannot be separated from the understanding that piracy and theft is rampant—and perhaps inevitable—online. Notably, both emerging and established artists can be victims. Emerging artists make for easy targets because they may lack the social infrastructure and audience to bring instances of theft to their notice. On the other hand, established artists may be targeted for their distinct styles and brand value by impersonators who could copy-mint their art and even take on their identities. Mumbai-based artist Jugal C, who minted his first NFT last year, and whose fan art has been ripped off multiple times, says so far victims of art theft have had to get stolen pieces manually removed, entailing a series of follow ups with platforms.
TECH VS TECH
Increasingly, marketplaces and platforms have begun instituting processes to weed out theft and piracy. Arun Benty, one of the founding members of the NFT platform Fandefi, says the moment an artist reports plagiarism, Fandefi invalidates the file in question. They also have curation and vetting systems in place.
Terrain.Art, a blockchain-powered platform with a focus on South Asian contemporary art, has a strict redressal system for artists affected by plagiarism and piracy. “We will also have access to a band of lawyers whom artists can look at consulting, to protect themselves. The idea is to empower these artists. We’re also making artists sign legal indemnities which say that this work is theirs, so it’s much easier for the original owner of the work to hold them accountable,” says Aparajita Jain, founder, Terrain.Art.
Similarly, the NFT platform Kalamint asks artists to fill application forms before they can mint NFTs. Pradeep Atmaram, director of marketing, explains, “When an artist sends an application form, we see if their social media accounts check out or if they have sent a portfolio. If they don’t have a portfolio or if their social media presence does not mention design or art, we’re naturally suspicious.” In such cases, they ask the artist to send a work-in-progress version of the art they will eventually mint. On some days, as many as 30 application forms are rejected. In the event that someone’s art is pirated, Kalamint reaches out to buyers who have bought the work and refunds them. Kalamint has also put in place checks at a technological level. Atmaram adds that something as simple as disabling the right click option can be a deterrent to piracy. The platform incubated a project called Reference Protocol which is an indexer of NFTs across all chains. It allows them to find out if someone is minting an NFT that has already been minted by the original artist on another platform.
Beyond the subcontinent, the platform DeviantArt has launched a Protect service, which uses machine learning to scan blockchains and marketplaces to identify pieces that may have been stolen from its own platform. It can reportedly detect minor variations, as well as modifications such as cropping or flipping.
Software companies are also setting up measures to assist NFT platforms worldwide. Last year saw the launch of Content Credentials, an in-built system within Photoshop which allows artists to link their Adobe IDs to their crypto wallets. Marketplaces that are compatible with this system will display this attribution alongside the NFT.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Aside from technological interventions, those in the NFT art ecosystem feel that there are other ways to respond to the issue as well. “For an emerging artist who wants to break into the NFT space, your first line of defense is to build a community. And this where the NFT space is very unique, they’re supportive. You can come to a platform like Twitter and be vocal about your work. If someone does plagiarise your work and mint it, you can lean on the community to take it down,” says Benty. Karan Kalra, a New Delhi-based visual engineer and artist, corroborates that whenever he has seen an instance of piracy discussed on Twitter in the NFT art community (Twitter is the hub for conversations such as these), it has not taken long for the issue to be resolved. Atmaram adds that his platform is considering opening up the verification system to the community and rewarding those who participate in it with currency.
Several artists still think marketplaces and platforms must be accountable, especially if they charge artists a fee to be able to mint their work. Ahmedabad-based Harsimran Juneja has a more generous view. “Every new space or industry comes with unforeseen challenges that are tackled in due time. I'm sure that the thinking hats will come together to find a solution that gets quicker as it evolves. A recognition of such activity by platforms and dedicated teams working towards avoiding plagiarism, in my opinion, is enough for me to continue making NFTs. There’s always some risk in everything you do, but I’m relieved and thankful that Terrain Open, the open marketplace of Terrain.art, has a redressal system for artists in place already.”
In the event that his art is copy-minted, he says he’d expect the marketplace to compensate him and in addition, penalise or ban the user/account selling plagiarized works from the platform. For him, platforms making an effort to educate buyers is the best way forward. “Something as simple as a guide to checking authenticity next to a ‘buy’ button could prompt the buyers to take the effort,” he says.
THE WAY FORWARD
From a legal viewpoint, Bose has good news for doomsayers who believed the digital art space is an unregulated minefield. Bose says that pre-existing laws in India are sufficient to protect the creator’s moral right of attribution in the NFT art space. “Under the Indian law, artworks are protected by the Copyright Act 1957, that confers upon the artist both economic and moral rights. Section 14 of the Copyright Act lists an exhaustive set of rights (including the right to adapt or reproduce their work) that are exclusively held by the possessor of the said copyright. Under this, reproduction of a said artwork is prohibited unless it is authorized by or is done by the copyright holder itself,” he explains. He adds that copyright for a piece of art exists from its inception, and registration is optional. Thus, any work of an artist either plagiarized or pirated would fall in violation of the copyright laws and the said action will be violative of an artist’s economic and moral right.
Can putting stringent authentication and verification processes in place have negative consequences? “Yes,” says Benty, adding, “Centralised spaces will give you a lot of protection. But that goes against the idea of NFTs as a publicly-owned structure. It goes against the ethos of it."
Terrain.art’s Jain believes safeguarding the NFT art space is as critical as ensuring it is decentralised and democratic, to ensure that people do not take advantage of these values. She’s optimistic that with time, more progress will be achieved with respect to protecting artists’ interests. “As this industry becomes more mature, we will see more checks and balances to protect the real artists. We’ve already seen great movement in people figuring out norms and best practices,” she says.
Neerja Deodhar is a Mumbai-based writer and researcher, with a focus on art and culture. She tweets at @neerjadeodhar.