Can NFTs help stop art piracy?

Quebec artist Gaëtane Dion sells elegant nature paintings and colorful illustrations of female faces. Although she sells her paintings from her studio, her work can also be seen all over the internet.Roger Paquette/Document

The career of Quebec artist Gaëtane Dion can be considered a resounding success: not only does she sell her elegant paintings of nature and her colorful illustrations of female faces from her gallery-workshop in the Eastern Townships, but her work is also visible all over the world. the Internet. Many online galleries and art blogs include him on their pages, you can browse a book dedicated to his art, reassemble one of his works as a digital puzzle, and until recently you could even order a reproduction. by Gaëtane Dion printed on canvas. look like a real painting. The only problem is that Dion herself has not authorized any of these uses and does not profit from them.

“It’s shameful,” Dion said, describing several websites that appear to have pulled samples of his paintings and drawings from his own site. “It’s a flight.” Some just use them to fill their content and attract eyeballs; the one that offered reproductions of his images on paper or canvas withdrew his work in February after an artists‘ rights society sent him a legal letter.

Canadian visual artists say this kind of piracy is rampant in their field, where unscrupulous operators offer framed reproductions, digital “paintings” and t-shirts featuring works they don’t own the rights to. Sometimes the original artists are credited; other times watermarks and signatures are removed.

“It’s a mole. It’s everywhere,” said Toronto copyright attorney Paul Bain. “There are microaggressions all over the internet and you can’t control them all. .”

A painting by Gaëtane Dion.Roger Paquette/Document

Museums have a simple solution: most release low-resolution reproductions of artworks in their collections specifically to discourage unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted works. (In Canada, images of artists who have been dead for over 50 years are in the public domain, a number that will soon be updated to match the American standard of 70 years, so people can reproduce these works as they see fit. wish.) But for living artists or commercial galleries trying to sell contemporary art from their websites, the images should be large enough to be appealing, and as the copyright holders, it is up to the artists themselves to control infringements.

Indigenous artists are particularly affected by numerous examples of pirated art appearing on t-shirts sold for Orange Shirt Day, an issue that became particularly acute last year after the discovery of unmarked graves at the former boarding school Kamloops Indian, who added attention to the Sept. 30 event.

“I started using social media as a marketing tool; this is how I share my work. I have to post it,” said Hawlii Pichette, a Mushkego-Cree illustrator from London, Ont., who has seen images of the free coloring pages she provides to teachers used on t-shirts. She says she is aware of nine different online stores that have stolen her work. “I have to look like a hawk.”

Individuals often say it’s just too much work to hunt down all infringing websites, most of which operate overseas, and send them legal takedown notices. Artists’ rights advocates are discussing other solutions, wondering if the blockchain technology behind NFTs so hyped in the art world could actually help artists control their imagery by including digital signatures.

“I’m optimistic about the technology and what it can do,” said Roanie Levy, president of Access Copyright, a Canadian organization that licenses the work of authors and artists. “But I’m also very careful that the technology is developed in a creator-friendly way so that it doesn’t leak out and we end up having to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

In theory, artists can mark a file containing their work, whether digital art or a reproduction of a physical piece, as theirs exclusively by saving it with a timestamp on a blockchain, an inviolable database. It’s the technology behind headline-grabbing NFTs, which some artists and musicians are selling for millions. (NFT stands for non-fungible token. Fungible assets, such as currencies, are divisible and interchangeable; non-fungible assets, such as real estate, are not. Tokens enforce the uniqueness of non-fungible collectibles and from original art to digital files, which could in fact be reproduced endlessly.)

But NFTs can be expensive to manufacture and require some know-how. Worse still, many are already subject to their own ownership disputes as unscrupulous players flood a booming market. Artists complain that OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, is full of examples of outright plagiarism or piracy, where sellers offer NFT art to which they do not own the rights. In the music industry, where artists see NFTs as a way to raise money from fans, there have also been many complaints. In February, a new platform called HitPiece offered NFTs of what appeared to be recordings available from streaming services, much to the chagrin of musicians who had never been asked to license their songs for this use.

“Blockchain is not a silver bullet, especially when it comes to piracy. Artists will need to continue to be vigilant to see if their work is being used without permission,” Levy said.

To help artists, Access Copyright has worked with the Representation of Canadian Artists, Copyright Visual Arts and the Regroupement des artistes en arts visuels du Québec to develop a platform called Imprimo, where artists can catalog their work, exhibition history and their biography for a small fee. It offers the artist two levels of blockchain protection, recording both their claim to an artwork and a digital signature, a system that allows artists to authenticate their artwork so buyers know that they get authorized examples. A QR code links to representations of an artwork and a timeline shows its journey – the all-important story of its provenance as it changes hands.

All of these security features may not prevent hacking of images taken from other sites. What they do, however, is help create a marketplace where consumers would consider blockchain-registered authentication as a basic requirement before purchasing art.

Not everyone is convinced that the system will work. Lou-ann Neel is an Indigenous artist and arts administrator from British Columbia who has also had her work appear on orange t-shirts without her permission or signature. She is skeptical of Indigenous artists joining the platform and primarily wants to see tougher laws.

Canada’s copyright law “has no teeth,” she said. “You can tell people to stop but there are no repercussions.”

Meanwhile, Lucinda Turner, an activist from Vancouver, would like to see a registry dedicated specifically to Indigenous art. She’s not indigenous, but has worked to combat foreign counterfeit carving on the Northwest Coast, and thinks blockchain could be particularly useful in the secondary market, reassuring buyers they’re getting the real thing. . She scours the Internet for unauthorized uses of the works of 40 Indigenous artists she has volunteered to represent and sends takedown letters under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Last summer, after the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops boarding school and with Orange Shirt Day approaching, she was sending up to 30 letters a day. “I find it hard to keep up but I feel compelled to,” she said.

Across the country, Dion can empathize as she takes a break from pursuing counterfeit websites in Spain, Denmark and Russia, and prepares for her new exhibition at the Brompton Cultural Center in Sherbrooke, Quebec. There, at least, she can be sure that no one will lift her paintings from the walls.

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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