On NFTs and crime
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m really into NFTs.1 I blame Zach Verdin, the Head of Strategic Programs at Knowledge Futures Group. He convinced me to buy my first one, back in late 2021. This stemmed from our broader conversation about the technology. Already, I was interested in their utility for my nonprofit, Criminology Open. I’ve since become a bonafide digital art collector and trader. Zach warned me NFTs are addictive. Also like drugs, I learned NFTs attract thieves. The risk of victimization is equally scary and fascinating, especially to a criminologist like me.2 So for my 5 Things, I share media on NFTs and crime.
“NFT” is short for non-fungible token. This Verge article is a humorous take on what NFTs are, how they work, and why they’re useful. For those of us who work in publishing, a key takeaway is “anything digital could be sold as an NFT (including articles from Quartz and The New York Times).”3 I think it’d be fun, and useful, to have NFTs for scholarly articles and other outputs. Researchers could keep them as mementos; send them to loved ones, friends or enemies; and list them for sale on marketplaces. This isn’t the future; it’s the present—people and organizations are doing it.4 To prove the point, I made a NFT for this article.
Copyright is meant to promote and balance the respective needs of creators and the public. As currently practiced, the actual art in NFT markets is de facto “gratis,”5 or free to see and share. No one pays for the art per se. Rather, they pay for the right to claim ownership, sell it, and, sometimes, enjoy other privileges—or what is referred to as “utility.” This model provides a way to freely spread yet financially incentivize works. People at Creative Commons (CC) took notice, publishing a blog on NFTs and CC licenses.
NFTs are a huge business. A Twitter thread by @TRF_Stories reports “sales soared past $24.9 billion in 2021.” My first NFT purchase was part of Pak’s Merge, which sold for a record price of $91.8 million.6 Bringing in big money ushers in big crime. With respect to copyright, NFTs put an old problem in a new cloak, and one that’s arguably easier to put on. There’s no need for a thief to become a skilled forger, for instance. “Anyone can take someone else’s image and upload it as an NFT, hoping it’ll sell,” said @Arvalis, an artist in the @TRF_Stories thread.
@NFTtheft is a Twitter account dedicated to “[d]ocumenting the plagiarism, fraud, and other issues in the NFT/crypto scene.” It gives daily updates on the latest heists, thereby revealing how these crimes unfold. In addition to stereotypical cases of fraud, you’ll see those involving CC licenses, like a “NFT collection … made up entirely of uncredited CC-BY-SA content.”7 The account also gives a glimpse of how NFT crime gets investigated and stopped, including “resources to help artists deal with the growing problem of plagiarized art on NFT marketplaces.”8
As true of cybercrime generally, there is little policing of NFT theft. Formal resolution is rare. One of the first things I learned about Web3, of which NFTs are a part, is “decentralized” means “you’re on your own.” Art plagiarism is just one way in which criminals victimize artists and collectors. Personally, my biggest fear is clicking the wrong link will lead my wallet to being drained. This is why the NFT Security Group was recently established, with members like Adobe, Coinbase, and OpenSea. They can do a lot to improve things on the technical side, but the best preventive force is the end-user. If you’re into NFTs, or have a future date with Zach, you should read this article on NFT Scams: How to Avoid Falling Victim.