Actor and comedian Seth Green, best known for creating Robot Chicken and portraying Dr. Evil’s son in the Austin Powers franchise, announced on Twitter last month that phishers stole his four “Bored Ape” NFTs. Let’s break down that mouthful: NFTs are a blockchain technology that creates indisputable ownership records that the art world has embraced as a way to buy and sell digital artwork. “Bored Apes” are a specific line of NFTs depicting original characters based on – you guessed it – bored apes.
Art theft is nothing new, but NFTs turn these existing precedents upside down. Traditional artwork is valuable because it’s unique and exclusive, and NFTs attempt to impose this uniqueness onto digital works. When a thief steals a painting, it’s gone. The underlying asset still exists when they steal an NFT, and anyone can still make infinite copies. Instead of stealing the pieces themselves, the thieves stole Green’s IP rights in the asset.
The stolen NFTs featured original characters that Green had developed into a television show. Unfortunately, the thief immediately flipped the pilfered monkeys to another presumably unsuspecting individual for $200,000. Green’s show has paused development, and likely won’t see the light of day unless he settles with the user who purchased the stolen NFTs. Green indicated that he was ready to take the issue to court and “set precedent” if that doesn’t work.
This case should be a lesson for artists and investors considering linking their IP to the blockchain: Copyright law already protects the legal rights of owners, and NFTs may not. While NFTs are incredible for recording title and provenance, treating them as commodities is inherently risky.