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NFTs are generating huge paydays for some artists, others feel under siege

A new fad is highlighting long-standing issues

a person takes a photo of eight photographs on the wall at an art gallery Photo: Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Artist communities on social media are going through a grim time. Some people are locking down their accounts, suspicious of new followers and afraid to lose their hard work. Other people are preemptively blocking accounts and warning their friends to keep an eye out. It’s all because of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are causing chaos for artists online.

If someone wants to share their work on social media, that means opening it up to the public. Usually, this ecosystem works pretty well for everyone; if people like the work, they can amplify it by sharing it, or support the artist even further by commissioning custom work or chipping in on a tip jar. But NFTs are changing the equation.

In layperson terms, an NFT is a unique token that designates ownership of a digital good. When you buy something, a contract of sorts is coded and then minted on a blockchain network. This contract is visible to everyone, and a permanent part of the blockchain. While this is a simplification, you can think of an NFT as a digital certificate that says someone “owns” a tweet, YouTube clip, or piece of artwork.

Artists and content creators are now selling NFTs as an evolution of fine art collecting, a way for one person to claim ownership of a particular piece of work. Functionally, it’s impossible to actually enforce, as anyone can just download their own version as a JPEG or PNG. But the idea is that if your purchase gets you on the ledger for the Ethereum cryptocurrency, then you have something that can “prove” that the piece of art belongs to you. Tangibility doesn’t matter, at least theoretically.

The problem — beyond the fuzziness of owning a piece of media that anyone else can access through other means — is that every time an NFT transaction is processed, it consumes a ton of energy. French artist Joanie Lemercier calculated that the sale of a single piece via NFT is the equivalent of two years’ worth of power usage in his studio. Knowledge of the environmental impact for NFTs is now slowly spreading. For example, fans’ impassioned feedback got Jacksfilms, a popular YouTuber, to take down an NFT auction.

a woman wearing a facemask stands inside an art museum looking at a painting Photo: Martin Gorostiola/NurPhoto/Getty Images

So why would anyone want to get on the NFT train? Well, most of the buzz around NFTs right now comes from the fact that they’re being sold for huge amounts of money. Mike Winkelmann, an artist also known as Beeple, sold a collage of 5,000 individual images for $69 million. Another artist, Grimes, sold various works to make $6 million in a weekend. Even Matt Furie, creator of Pepe the Frog, is getting in on the action. The immediate appeal of such a trend is obvious — it seems like a new boom with lots of money on the table for clever entrepreneurs.

But the boom also brings with it people looking to take advantage of the fervor. Artists are reporting that their work is being stolen and sold on NFT sites without their knowledge or permission. Automated services can instantly “tokenize” a tweet or an image, and while artists can file takedown requests, that’s still irritating legwork. Add in the environmental concerns, and a lot of artists on social media are distrustful at best of NFTs, while many are refusing to engage with the concept at any level on principle.

“Surviving the Twitter landscape is already a freaking hellscape right now, and the fact that this is making so many artists I follow lock their accounts makes me so sad,” said Clarfy, a hobbyist artist, in an email to Polygon.

Clarfy noted that fighting the Twitter algorithm to get posts out to as many viewers as possible is already an issue for most artists. “The fact that a lot of people who struggle to sell commissions at all are now getting targeted, and their stuff is being sold for TONS more than what they usually get is extremely worrying.”

Another artist, who goes by the handle FlyingSausage, told Polygon that they’re worried about how art theft will evolve with NFTs. They created a Harry Potter poster that reads, “What would Hermione do?” and they’ve already had issues on that front.

“It’s been stolen and sold on several different sites/shops and continues to make its rounds on social media,” said FlyingSausage, adding that they feel as though they have no control of the image or its distribution. With the financial incentive of NFTs added, they expect to see the poster appearing on those platforms as well.

The end result of all of the above is that many artists online are feeling outright hostile toward NFTs. Some are creating blocklists to bar automated accounts from creating unauthorized NFTs of work posted on social media. Other artists are simply locking their accounts so only existing followers can view their posts — which, of course, comes at the price of visibility. And others are challenging their peers who are pro-NFT, trying to convince them to abandon the practice. On March 8, art portfolio site ArtStation announced it would begin working with NFTs, with its effort involving a carbon credit program to offset the electricity costs. The response on social media was so swift and loud that ArtStation recanted its announcement within hours.

Mining the Worlds Second-most-valuable Cryptocurrency at Evobits I.T SRL
A mining rig containing six Sapphire GPUs used to mine Ethereum.
Photo: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg/Getty Images

There are potential advantages to the idea of individual codes and concrete ownership, including for smaller artists. For instance, a popular commission style right now is “adoptables,” which artist Liadoodles sells online. An adoptable is a character design created by an artist, then put up for auction. Whoever wins the auction then takes ownership of the character, and can use them for role-play, a D&D campaign, or however they choose.

Trading ownership of a character can be profitable for artists — adoptables can actually sell for more than a custom character commission, and the artist gets to design something with their own vision instead of meeting a client’s description. Theoretically, using an NFT in this case could make sense — at least, if an artist is willing to swallow the immense energy costs. But even within this specific example, there’s no stopping someone from sharing the art without permission. Art theft is an age-old problem that won’t get solved with fancy new technology.

Liadoodles hasn’t looked into NFTs, nor does she support them, but markets like adoptables can be at risk of art thievery. The perceived security, combined with the potential financial gain, means that some artists will remain intrigued by NFTs even if the rest of their community rejects them.

“If all this NFT discourse is good for something, it’s to show people that artists are always very vulnerable with their content in the Internet,” Liadoodles told Polygon. Social media has opened doors for artists and made it possible to connect with peers and patrons around the world, but some forces are still outside their control.

“We need more protection regarding copyright issues and property,” said Liadoodles. “We’ve had these issues for years and the NFT is just the cherry on top.”