Ryder Ripps, Bored Apes and 'Owning' an NFT

A debate over fair use and copyright in the NFT age ensues.

AccessTimeIconMay 19, 2022 at 6:08 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 5:33 p.m. UTC
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Ryder Ripps, a contemporary artist known for his satire, stunts and design work for millennial-geared brands, has begun minting a non-fungible token (NFT) set mocking the highly influential Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC).

About 550 tokens were minted “by hand” by Ripps since Monday, he said. Each features a unique siminan character already seen in the Bored Apes fictional world. That’s to say, Ripps is aping the apes.

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Foundation, an NFT marketplace, had suspended trading of several of the images earlier this week after receiving a Digital Millennium Copyright Act request. According to a letter shared by Ripps, his work had violated corporate stewart of the Bored Apes brand, Yuga Labs', intellectual property. Though Ripps had intended to fight the DMCA – as he's done before to defend other artistic acts of plagiarism – the images are again live and stirring controversy in the NFT industry.

“i havent (sic) slept,” Ripps said in a private message yesterday at around 11:00 UTC.


“by hand


Buyers of the so-called “RR/BAYC” tokens, an abbreviation of Ripps’ name, see this act as a work of “performance art.” Ripps is taking Yuga Labs’ copyrightable material and putting it in a new context by appending a different non-fungible blockchain signature to it. The images may be the same, though the meaning is different, he said.

NFTs are a type of blockchain-based technology used to append a tradable asset to another piece of digital data, such as a PDF, GIF or MP3. Supporters believe they have use for improving the provenance of data and granting infinitely reproducible files a type of unique identity.

NFTs are also increasingly a tool used for fundraising – sometimes in ways that look to fall afoul of established securities laws. Seen as a hotbed for innovation and artistic production, the sector is also raising issues around copyright law and what it means to own a digital file.

The Bored Ape Yacht Club allows its token holders to monetize their NFTs and the associated characters, in an effort that could be called decentralized brand building. Ape holders have opened theme restaurants, sold Ape merchandise and have expanded the club’s lore through fan art.

It's unclear why or how Ripps' images were first taken down, a process that could have been automated, or put back up on Foundation, which Ripps thinks must have come as a direct act from Yuga Labs.

"It sends a huge message, like, if they went out of their way to cancel that request," Ripps said in a phone call. A representative for Yuga Labs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ripps has mostly been selling his fake apes for .1 ETH, worth about $200 currently. A Twitter user of the name @VardCrypto was gifted a RR/BAYC token after telling Ripps he enjoyed the prank and asking for a discount.

“Conceptual art isn't something you see within the NFT space everyday,” Vard told CoinDesk. “I love the fact [Ripps is] using the exact BAYC base URI [uniform resource identifier, used to address online data] to prove you cannot copy an NFT.”

This is not the first time Ripps has made an artistic statement about NFTs or criticized successful “profile pic” projects. Also called PFPs, these projects refer to an NFT sector of mostly cartoonish animal figures like Lazy Lions, Pudgy Penguins and MiLadies that buyers use as online avatars.

In July of last year, Ripps “punked the CryptoPunks,” an early NFT art series of highly valuable collector’s items, by copy/pasting a punk file, minting his own token and using it as his profile picture on social media platforms including Twitter. Ripps’s version of Punk 3100 was identical to the CryptoPunk NFT first minted by Larva Labs in 2017, except for the token attached to it.

“By engaging their so-called art with the Ethereum network, they should be believers in the self-governing ideals of cryptocurrency. I question Larva Labs's motives, understanding of art, understanding of ‘punk’ and understanding of cryptocurrency/NFT,” Ripps told CoinDesk at the time.

Over the past year, Ripps has also sought to draw attention to supposed racist tropes present in the Bored Ape Yacht Club. He hosts a website called Gordon Goner, referring to one of the once-pseudonymous founders of Yuga Labs, detailing what he calls “dog whistles” and “Nazi imagery” in the series.

"If you've been on 4chan this is just classic trolling," Ripps said, referring to some of the obscure references or "inside jokes" he said he found. "It's surprising how far they took it."

Yuga Labs has denied Ripps' accusations, and other outside observers have called some of his claims superficial, spurious or coincidental.

“I bought [a RR/BAYC] because I’ve been following his work for years, and although he’s known for design his satire is my favorite and his most poignant. I would never consider a Yuga Labs purchase of any kind,” an NFT collector who goes by krystall.eth told CoinDesk.

Though others are participating in a boycott, the bored brand is only growing. Celebrities including Justin Beiber, Jimmy Fallon and Snoop Dogg have all joined the “yacht club.” A recent sale of virtual land tied to the BAYC “metaverse” topped $285 million and contributed to a rise in Ethereum transaction fees (which rise based on demand) with the network seeing its fourth-highest trading week coinciding with the sale. Yuga Labs recently closed a $450 million funding round led by premier venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.

There's a film series planned, an APE token and blockchain "business development teams" are courting Yuga away from Ethereum.

Ripps’s current BAYC project was kick-started after an argument with prominent NFT influencer j1mmy.eth. Ripps minted a version of j1mmy’s Bored Ape profile picture to push back against claims that holding a token gives someone a unique claim over an image.

“if an Ape comes at you for rocking their PFP they might say ‘well it doesn’t matter, it's not the same NFT!’ to which you should say ‘exactly, you can’t copy an NFT,, therefore it's an original work, with new context/meaning,’ just like the phunks,” Ripps said.

While Ripps’ early experiment with counterfeit CryptoPunks was allowed to continue trading on OpenSea after a failed copyright claim from Larva Labs, some legal experts think the merry prankster may be running into legal trouble this time around.

“The BAYC images are another story. There's no real question that they are copyrightable and that RR's use of them is prima facie infringing,” Brian Frye, a lawyer and conceptual artist known for his own statements on plagiarism, told CoinDesk.

“The problem is that he's selling NFTs associated with the images into the ‘same’ market as [Yuga Labs],” he said.

Ripps said what he is doing would fall under “fair use” of images, a legal copyright exemption meant for education purposes – like a news organization using a Bored Ape image in a story to show what they look like, Frye said.

“But using a BAYC image to illustrate an NFT available for sale is the same thing the copyright owner is doing in order to monetize the work, so courts are unlikely to see it as a fair use,” he said.

Ripps has argued that creating and selling NFTs is an act of art in itself, and that a broader understanding of fair use would apply considering his body of work. Frye also doubted that Yuga would press charges because it might draw attention to Ripps’s race-related criticisms or “make them look like tools.”

On Twitter, Ripps’s project has seen mixed results. A partner with Egirl Capital, @DegenSpartan, asked “what's going on at [the] foundation?” and called it a “free for all,” commenting on the recent brouhaha.

Although Ripps has a First Amendment constitutional right to criticize and comment on an influential project, his work could be said to be diminishing the Bored Ape’s brand and potentially creating confusion in the NFT markets, though that may not matter so much in the eyes of the law.

“Copyright doesn’t care about consumers. In fact, the whole point of copyright is to make consumers pay more in order to benefit copyright owners,” Frye said.

UPDATE (MAY 19, 2022 – 20:45 UTC): Reflects updated number of Apes minted.

UPDATE (JUNE 29, 2022 – 23:40): Clarifies a statement from VardCrypto.


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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.