The Node: The Problem of Authenticity in NFT Art

“This work does require a context. It's not just the blockchain," Foundation's CEO said.

CoinDesk Insights
Mar 9, 2021 at 5:28 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:23 p.m. UTC
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Foundation, a relatively new Ethereum-based non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace, is carving out a space for old school internet creatives to finally monetize their work. Beginning with the sale of a tokenized version of "Nyan Cat," created by artist Chris Torres, though a ubiquitous feature online, Foundation has opened the floodgates to the “meme economy,” to use Torres’ expression.

In recent weeks, other creators associated with bygone memes have looked to capitalize on their work. While this is an exciting new area for the “ownership economy” made possible through cryptographic tools, it leaves questions about authorship, authenticity and who could claim sole rights – and profits – over images that had previously belonged to the world. 

Last week, for instance, the conceptual and controversial artist Ryder Ripps listed the “template” for the DEAL WITH IT meme, a pair of pixelated black shades typically worn by a laid-back dog. The image has no known origins, according to KnowYourMeme, an unofficial documenter of internet ephemera, but has long been associated with Ripps. 

Ripps was one of the co-founders of dumpFM, a defunct image repository and chatroom that was upstream from much internet culture in the early 2010s. That’s where DEAL WITH IT, first came to life, Ripps claims. (Verge gives a longer accounting of meme’s shaky origins.)

“How can anything be proved? i made a site called dumpfm that was popular and created the original meme template for it,” Ripps said in a Twitter direct message. 

Someone was willing to pay 15 ETH, or about $27,000, for the token, which apparently comes with “the full rights to this image & meme and the Photoshop template used to create it,” according to the Foundation listing. This is a right anyone had before, judging by the number of DEAL WITH IT memes in circulation.

Foundation separates itself from other NFT platforms as an exclusive and curated site. Founded in late-2020, the site has seen volumes in excess of $27 million worth of ETH. Similar to Clubhouse, artists that want on must be invited. 

“This work does require a context. It's not just the blockchain. You can't just upload an image to a blockchain and have it have value. There has to be the context of the creator,” Foundation CEO Kayvon Tehranian said in an interview. “That's why we have a curatorial staff on team who actually interacts with artists.”

On some works, like Ripps' DEAL WITH IT and Torres’ Nyan Cat, the site provides “Proof of Authenticity.” It’s a little sticker that appears below the item description, meaning that Foundation’s in-house curators can attest to the provenance of the work or that the artist is who they claim to be: in this case, a bona fide memer.

Asked for specifics about how the authentication process works, the answer left room for doubt. Foundation isn’t searching the Internet Archive for proof that a person created a meme, but it is relying on personal attestations from the author. In other words, they’re using reputation to establish reputation.

“[It's] my word, not Foundation, i’m claiming ownership, i know i created that meme template and like any other claim,” Ripps said. “How do u prove u own a house? how do u prove u ate dinner last night? its a stupid question.” 

Ripps’ long-claimed role in the meme’s history isn’t really in dispute, (“there are people who u can corroborate information,” he said). Even if he had nothing to do with it, he’s been claiming ownership over the idea for long enough that it ought to be worth something. 

In the past there may not have been a reason to lie about something as stupid as a meme, though there’s real money at stake now. In 2015, Ripps said he didn't care if he received credit for a meme, even if it "made other people LOTS of money."

Now: “If there's an economy for people owning parts of internet history, I'd like to make some money and sell my part ... Lord knows I never recouped the 1,000$s in server costs I've spent and never made money or the thousands of hours,” Ripps said. [Note, this quote has been lightly edited for clarity.]

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who could claim ownership of DEAL WITH IT. Though, in this instance, Ripps got there first. 

Tehranian said other creators are free to create their own versions, and perhaps two or more provenances could exist side by side. In fact, if he is to be believed, everything will become an NFT in the not-too-distant future, and be “attributed to its rightful owner.”

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