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Messy NFT drop angers infosec pioneers with unauthorized portraits

Messy NFT drop angers infosec pioneers with unauthorized portraits

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‘I don’t approve of this whatsoever and would like it removed,’ said one subject

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

An unauthorized NFT drop celebrating infosec pioneers has collapsed into a mess of conflicting takedowns and piracy.

Released on Christmas Day by a group called “ItsBlockchain,” the “Cipher Punks” NFT package included portraits of 46 distinct figures, with ten copies of each token. Taken at their opening price, the full value of the drop was roughly $4,000. But almost immediately, the infosec community began to raise objections — including some from the portrait subjects themselves.

What’s an NFT?

NFTs allow you to buy and sell ownership of unique digital items and keep track of who owns them using the blockchain. NFT stands for “non-fungible token,” and it can technically contain anything digital, including drawings, animated GIFs, songs, or items in video games. An NFT can either be one of a kind, like a real-life painting, or one copy of many, like trading cards, but the blockchain keeps track of who has ownership of the file.

NFTs have been making headlines lately, some selling for millions of dollars, with high-profile memes like Nyan Cat and the “deal with it” sunglasses being put up for auction. There’s also a lot of discussion about the massive electricity use and environmental impacts of NFTs. If you (understandably) still have questions, you can read through our NFT FAQ.

The portrait images misspelled several names — including EFF speech activist Jillian York and OpenPGP creator Jon Callas — and based at least one drawing on a copyright-protected photograph. More controversially, the list included some figures who have been ostracized for harmful personal behavior, including Jacob Appelbaum and Richard Stallman.

Responding on Twitter, York tweeted a link to her own portrait and said simply, “I don’t approve of this whatsoever and would like it removed.”

Tuesday morning, the ItsBlockchain team announced in a Medium post that it would be “shutting down” the collection in response to the backlash, offering full refunds to any purchasers and covering any gas fees involved in the transfer.

“We were not aware of the likeness laws in NFTs as the market is not regulated,” the post reads. “It’s our mistake. We have to own up to it.”

In the wake of the post, OpenSea appears to have taken central action to remove the collection, which is no longer visible on the platform.

The incident is a reminder of the potentially thorny legal issues around NFTs, where norms of permissionless innovation often clash with likeness rights and intellectual property law. Typically, US laws around publicity rights hold that a person’s name and identity can’t be used for promotion without their consent — although it’s unclear how such a lawsuit would work in practice when applied to NFTs.

Update 12/28 11:07AM ET: Included Cipher Punk’s Medium post shutting down the collection and OpenSea’s decision to remove the tokens.