As NFTs Heat Up, Artists Question Their Legitimacy was written by Melanie Allen and originally appeared on Partners in Fire. It has been republished with permission.
NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are the hottest thing to hit the art world since the advent of photography. There were over 11 million NFT sales in 2021, and 2022 is shaping up to be even hotter, with over two million sales in January alone.
However, these sales numbers don’t tell the whole story. NFTs pose unique challenges, including questionable copyright laws, and moral implications. Although many artists have embraced the new technology, others have legitimate doubts.
What is an NFT
An NFT is data stored on the blockchain. This data becomes a digital collectible and may contain art, music, video, or anything stored as data. Each NFT has a unique and trackable code assigned to it on the blockchain, which means that it can only have one owner at a time.
The unique features inherent in NFTs make them a tempting target for artists looking to expand their portfolios and find new customers in the digital age.
Artists Cashing in on NFT Craze
Rodrigo Mendez has over ten years of experience as a professional artist and has won awards in Spain, Colombia, and Mexico. He decided to start making NFTs because he saw a lot of potential in the technology and wanted to explore it before it became mainstream.
Mendez uses NFTs in an unconventional way. He offers them as a bonus to clients who buy a physical painting. Any customer who purchases a traditional painting also receives an accompanying NFT. In this way, customers receive both the physical and digital versions of the work. He believes the shift to NFTs won’t replace the fine art mediums that we know but will provide new tools for artists and collectors that could be beneficial to both parties.
It’s not just professional artists who are using NFTs. Hobby artists are using this technology to monetize their work for the first time.
Lemon Johnson is a hobby artist who mainly worked with oils and acrylics before dabbling in NFTs. His “Fingertrap” NFTs were the first to sell on the Neon NFT marketplace, which he likens to “a vending machine for NFTs.” Thus far, he’s made nearly $15K with his limited edition NFT offerings.
Josiah Teng is a hobby artist who, before entering the NFT marketplace, sketched for fun. However, the NFT marketplace offered him the opportunity to monetize his hobby, and he launched his first NFT product line at the end of February. Teng believes “NFTs are creating a modern art Renaissance, where culture is moving towards digital products. This shift creates more opportunities for artistic communities to support each other and increases the opportunities for exposure. Getting your work seen is intimidating and difficult for a hobby artist like myself, but the NFT community makes it a lot easier.”
Artists Reject NFTs Over Copyright Concerns and Moral Objections
Not all artists have jumped aboard the NFT train. Many are concerned about copyright infringement, sustainability, and the morality of the NFT marketplace.
Gwenn Seemel, a professional artist specializing in polka dot cubist portraits, is one of these. Seemel places her work directly on the public domain because she believes “humans need imitation. It shapes us as a species, and it continues to help us evolve”.
However, she has concerns about the environmental impact caused by minting NFTs. “Minting, selling, and re-selling a single NFT has a stupid big carbon footprint. There are always promises from crypto types that they’re going to make this process less wasteful, but it’s not happening very quickly.” In light of these concerns, she refuses to let her work be used to mint NFTs.
David Revoy, a freelance artist with over 20 years of experience in illustration, has firsthand experience with having artwork stolen for NFTs. The “Dream Cat” NFT catalog on Open Sea is a derivative of his 2016 Catavatar generator. This NFT generated over 10000 Euros in revenue for the uploader Roplak, while the original artist Revoy received nothing. However, Revoy isn’t overly concerned about the money. He objects to NFTs for moral reasons. As he explains on his website, “NFT represents the pinnacle of capitalism and speculation, and this ideology is not fine with me. I would probably emit the same moral right concerns if my work were used for racism propaganda or as a communication device to hurt any human”.
Revoy ultimately decided to abandon legal action, in this case, saying, “that’s something I don’t want to live, spend money or time on.” Even with this theft of work, Revoy will continue to create work for the creative commons. “If I want to continue to share my work as a common resource, it also means I have to share it with the minority of the worst sample of human on this planet. It’s part of the risk, and I always knew it when I decided to release my work under CC license”.
Another artist, who works under the name DARKRECONSTRUCTION, has over a decade of graphic design experience and has experience creating traditional abstract designs with acrylic. They believe that NFTs lead to art theft and end up hurting the very people they should protect. So-Called NFT creators will “download a picture of someone else’s art of social media and turn it into an NFT” Although they admit this type of theft isn’t new, they believe it’s harder to track and control. “A day doesn’t go by without at least three separate tweets on my timeline about how some new person’s art has been stolen and turned into an NFT, and the exchange it’s on isn’t responding to takedown requests,” they add.
DARKRECONSTRUCTION also questions the innovation of NFT makers. “It isn’t innovative to steal assets from other websites and run it through a bot to create every possible combination. It’s a waste of time”.
How Artists Can Protect Their Work
Unfortunately, artists don’t have much recourse for moral objections. Marc Misthal, a copyright attorney with Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman, P.C out of Manhattan, says that being morally against an NFT isn’t going to give artists much standing under copyright law. “When a work is governed by a creative commons license,” he says, “an artist’s ability to enforce their rights depends on the terms of the license, and each case will be different.
Misthal admits that protecting works from unauthorized use is difficult. He recommends that artists register their works with the Copyright Office and include language on any website showing their work stating that the artist owns the copyright and it’s not authorized for reproduction without the artist’s permission. “This will not stop all instances of copying,” he clarifies, “but it will be helpful if action must be taken against unauthorized copying.”
The Future of Art
While artists remain split on the legitimacy of NFTs, they will likely be around in some form for the foreseeable future. As Seemel reminds us, “Every technology brings with it a ripple effect. Photography is partially responsible for Western European artists giving up realism and turning their attention to painting in more inventive ways. Impressionism and Expressionism are some of what came out of that shift.”
Will we see similar shifts due to the advent of NFTs? Only time will tell.