When a $70 million NFT sold at Christie’s last spring—a time before Bored Apes, Cool Cats, and Lazy Lions roamed the earth—some scoffed at the fortune spent on computer pixels that could be copy-pasted to your screen for free. But the lot wasn’t just a jpeg, it was the jpeg—and the money went to claim the original work, or the one we would call “authentic.” Take away that distinction, and yes, the file is worthless.
It’s a high-stakes game that’s rife with fraud, abuse, and theft, and not even the biggest players are immune. But OpenSea, the planet’s largest NFT marketplace, might have a few tricks up its sleeve. This morning, it’s rolling out two products to safeguard the authenticity of collections on its platform. The first streamlines the verification of creator accounts, and the second banishes copymints, or spoofs of existing NFTs, using image recognition.
Verified badges are among OpenSea’s so-called “lighthouse” features that guide buyers toward real NFTs. But to accrue more of them, its process had to become less opaque, the company says. Creators were previously left to guess whether they were eligible to apply, but now those who’ve overseen more than 100 ETH in trading volume will be sent targeted invitations encouraging them to apply.
But sales volume is just one of the two prime factors judged for verification, OpenSea’s vice president of product, Shiva Rajaraman, tells Fast Company. The other is chatter of fans on social channels—often, buzzy collections amass followings for their accounts on forums like Discord or Twitter, and those can be linked to OpenSea as evidence.
“It might be easy to fake a piece of art, but it’s really hard to fake an active community,” says Rajaraman.
The chatter matters
True to the spirit of DeFi, community might be what OpenSea leans on most heavily. It will eventually broaden verification eligibility to accounts with lower sales volumes, at which point trawling Discords could become mission critical. It might look for signals hidden in the archives, such as how vocal a community has been, or if there are high-profile members lending their own credibility. All of this would be carried out by human moderators, with the ultimate vision that algorithms take over—if or when they prove up to the task.
But verifying accounts is just one piece of the puzzle in thwarting copymint swindlers. Another, of course, is ferreting out copymints themselves—for which OpenSea will now employ artificial intelligence-powered software, it says. The program flags not just identical pixel-by-pixel replicas, but also flips, rotations, filters, or other permutations, and it will be trained to grow in sophistication over time. Subsequent review will be done by human moderators, but again, just until full automation is viable.
That might be dangerous territory—and to understand why is to know the tensions at the heart of NFT-world. The art of blockchain is borne from authenticity as a pure form of ownership. Yet even as the community evangelized its revolutionary ideas, it also had to reckon with the fact that as NFTs were growing into a booming, multibillion-dollar business, they spawned an army of copymints that invaded markets, fooled the unwitting, and uprooted the very principles on which they were founded.
But to regulate would infringe on Web3’s other major tenet, freedom—which is, to flourish outside the gatekeeping of any central authority.
OpenSea is no stranger to this quandary. In December, after it banned a series of flipped versions of Bored Apes—titled Phunky Ape Yacht Club—it fielded backlash from the cryptosphere. And as for where creative playfulness ends and plagiarism begins, it’s a fine line.
As Rajaraman notes, there are plenty of derivative projects that are embraced by the community. In fact, it’s a pride of the industry, with blockchains open-sourced for a reason: “Zoom out, and one of the keys to this world is that you can observe everything going on and compose on top of it,” he says. You could create, say, four furry animal friend avatars, while somebody else designs a wardrobe, and somebody else writes them into a playable game universe. The Web3 ethos in a nutshell? “Throw it out there and see what blossoms,” says Rajaraman.
Blossom things have. Take “CrypToadz,” for example, a collection that transforms each of the popular CryptoPunks into a frog shape. Or “Larva Lads,” which are CryptoPunk heads on a larva’s body. Also “Uncool Cats,” i.e. Cool Cats with broken glasses, unibrows, and acne.
Cracking down on deception
The fear, of course, is that OpenSea becomes an arbiter of NFTs—an idea the community would scorn. But as a leading force in a nascent space, OpenSea also bears some burden of responsibility.
So where does it draw the line? Anne Fauvre-Willis, OpenSea’s head of special projects, tells Fast Company that for now, the team is focused on removing NFTs that “have the intent to deceive,” or pretend to be a different collection. As she notes, most of the copymints they find are exact copies of multimillion-dollar blue-chip projects. “Our job is to facilitate users finding the ‘right’ collections on the site,” she says. Beyond that, it wants to keep a light hand: “Our goal is not to decide what is creative and what is not . . . we’re not art experts, we’re a technology platform.”
Again, OpenSea hopes to tap its community. In gray-area cases, it says it might contact rights-holders of an original collection to decide if they support the offshoot. Or it might rely on its own research—if, for example, it saw that creators for two similar projects were in each other’s Discords and collaborated in the past, it might decide not to disrupt their ecosystem.
“We don’t want to be editorializing on behalf of creators—we want to give them a platform where they can do this themselves,” says Fauvre-Willis.
However, neither she nor Rajaraman have figured out how this system applies to the famous debate over CryptoPunk v1s versus v2s—two profile picture collections that are identical save for a different background color, and are locked in a dramatic legal battle over authenticity that involved several delistings from OpenSea. (On the site as of now, V2s appear to have won the verification badge.)
Possible future products OpenSea is tinkering with are better search functions that surface real NFTs, and a feature to tag collections as “inspired by” other NFTs.
But at the end of the day, it says, the platform will serve the people. “We have creators betting their livelihoods, and they want material value to go to their fans,” says Rajaraman. “If we don’t offer a cloak of protection, fans might be duped by scams based on someone else’s intellectual property repurposed for a fast buck. So we’re asking, how do we reward authentic content?”