When a highly-anticipated non-fungible token (NFT) project seems off, skeptical users will often head to Twitter to voice concerns and attempt to investigate further. The accusations often become more intense and spread quickly when they involve a prominent Web3 influencer.
On the eve of her NFT drop on Wednesday, pseudonymous digital artist and researcher Elena was accused of plagiarizing artistic assets in her collection. Elena, who amassed a following of nearly 90,000, previously described herself as the “researcher in residence” at blue-chip NFT collection Azuki, though that designation has since been wiped from her Twitter page.
On Wednesday, the chief creative at governance protocol creator Phase Labs, who goes by the pseudonym Kemosabe on Twitter, posted a thread claiming that Elena "stole" art for her new NFT project Atomic Ordinals. The collection, featuring 200 pixel-art inscriptions on the Ordinals Protocol, was originally set to mint Wednesday on marketplace Magic Eden’s Bitcoin Creator Launchpad.
Kemosabe referenced a series of tweets from artist Nicole Liu, creator of the Bitcoin-based NFT collection Abstract Ordinals, who addressed the similarities between the art, though she said she wasn’t bothered by it.
“I think imitation is a form of flattery,” said Liu in a tweet. “It makes me happy that she liked it so much to use it as inspiration and I don't have a problem with it.”
However, Liu did raise concerns over the quality of the images and the high price tag for the inscriptions.
The threads about Elena’s art quickly spread through the Twittersphere, resurfacing a discussion about how Web3 influencers should not abuse their positions of power to earn a quick buck – a trend that continues to plague the space.
“Time and time again, people amass influence only to cash in on it, when the bag becomes big enough,” wrote Kemosabe.
Soon after, Dem, the pseudonymous head of community at Chiru Labs, the Web3 company behind Azuki, tweeted that Elena was no longer on a contract with Chiru Labs. The team specified that the contract had expired this month and will not be renewed.
The fine line between inspiration and plagiarism
As crypto Twitter buzzed about the alleged scandal, Elena posted a tweet stating she would postpone the Atomic Ordinals drop due to the backlash. In her tweet, she claimed that she had “retraced” some of the source images referenced by other users, an act that while not explicitly illegal is largely frowned upon within the art community.
As news of the situation spread, Elena said that she’d received threats and hate comments in response.
“Today I have received an incredible amount of hate, including numerous death threats in dms, which is disappointing as I’ve always tried to simply give value to the space,” said Elena. “I have heard your concerns about the art and I will be working to fix the file quality and any images that might be seen as ‘copied’ as they were only retraces and I never had any ill intent whatsoever.”
On Thursday evening, Elena posted a longer thread addressing the allegations in further detail, stating that she had used “free-for-commercial-use images to replace 16 of the art[works],” and took accountability for her actions.
“This is a horrible look. There’s no way around it and I deeply regret it and I genuinely apologize to everyone,” said Elena. “These silo-ed images exist so artists can incorporate them into their work which I know made a lot of people upset.” She noted that those 16 images would be removed from the collection.
The power of Web3 influence
The theft of digital artwork to make NFTs remains a serious problem. The problem is often compounded when well-known figures within the Web3 space promote trending projects to their millions of followers without proper due diligence.
In May, Web3 influencer Andrew Wang promoted an NFT collection called Pixel Penguins, a series of pixel art profile pictures (PFPs). Wang tweeted about the project to his nearly 190,000 followers and pledged that profits from the mint would go to the artist to allegedly help with their mounting medical bills.
However, hours after the collection earned the top spot on secondary marketplace OpenSea, the address behind the mint smart contract ran off with the funds and the artist behind the collection deleted their Twitter account. Later, tweets surfaced that pointed to stolen artwork.
While buyers were angry at the artist who rugged them, they were also angry at Wang, a prominent voice on NFT Twitter, for promoting the collection.
The Pixel Penguins rug pull not only sparked conversations around NFT plagiarism, but the power that Web3 influencers hold in impacting their followers’ decisions to mint into collections.
In February, after once-popular NFT project Friendsies rugged its holders by “pausing” its collection and deleting its Twitter, users came after influencers that promoted the collection for their role in its success.
Elena said in a tweet that her Atomic Ordinals would be free to mint in response to the controversy. In the end, the project serves as a reminder to collectors eager to mint into a new digital project to always do their research, regardless of the artist’s reputation.
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