Verifiable Authorship for the $150 Million NFT Art Market
To illustrate the concept, this very article is an NFT. You can verify its authorship cryptographically. Check it out below.
Last week, an NFT art creator with the OpenSea handle Pest Supply made nearly a million dollars selling Banksy-style-looking works. Emotional mayhem ensued because bidders felt dismayed at the unclear authorship of the works, which reads a lot like cranky Twitter backlash. Pest Supply never purported to be Banksy (indeed, quite the opposite), but because there is not yet a standard practice around intellectual property assertions and derivative creative works in this new medium, spectators quickly cried forgery and rejoiced at having something else on the internet to complain about.
In the days since, a number of dubiously “original” NFT works have publicly highlighted the need for better authorship standards. For example, artist Rosa Menkham didn’t consent to participate in any NFT projects, yet she found her name and creative work being sold as such. Additionally, imagery from the Larvalabs Cryptopunks collection of early NFTs has also recently been replicated on the centralized Binance Smart Chain. Although Larvalabs decried the so-called unauthorized copying of their original content, those BSC Cryptopunks have commanded $2.2 million in BNB. A BSC copycat of our Treum colleagues’ Euler Beats project (celebrated by Mark Cuban and NFT buyers alike) is now shutting down after a few days in the sun.
NFT art objects bearing pre-existing works of known creators without their participation can be categorized as “remix” or “plagiarism” depending upon the perspective and occasion, but the NFT standard itself doesn’t offer much ability to discern between the two.
The technical specifications of NFTs do not natively allow their contracts to resolve back to the identity information of human beings /creators. This means you can’t necessarily assume that if you find an NFT in the wild, you can easily sort out whether it was made by Beeple himself.
In the case of Christie’s first NFT sale, the following information is being publicly displayed on their website:
In the data shared about this NFT, Christie’s includes the wallet address containing the work, and the smart contract address of the NFT’s minting. Including such information is very leading-edge for an auction house, and Christie’s has rightly received global attention for their forward-thinking choice to sell this work. However, these addresses aren’t especially human-readable. Critically, neither address can be cryptographically resolved back to the identity of the artist known as “Beeple.”
In order to determine authorship of an NFT today, we either have to trust the centralized identity system of platforms that sell NFTs (in this case, Christie’s), or we have to take that wallet address and contract address and do some additional sleuthing.
When assessing authorship of an NFT found in the wild (or conversely, if you’re a seller trying to hunt down the identity of a buyer), you either have to accept the purported identity communicated by the platform (not very cryptopunk/very centralized), or you might have to launch a multiple-browser-window multi-platform investigation into old Twitter posts or blockchain transactions for some more intel (not very user-friendly/very manual). When it comes to Christie’s, we can probably trust Noah Davis and the Contemporary Art Team to keep it 100 on their first NFT sale under the watchful eye of the global digital asset market. But what about the uncurated user-generated content NFT marketplaces where creators regularly publish intellectual property taken from other artists without permission for republication or derivative works?
Buyer anguish and seller puzzlement is on the rise as a result of this lack of verifiable authorship standard, based on recent conversations with stressed out NFT creators and concerned NFT marketplaces looking for a simpler way to authenticate works. It seems obvious that we should be using cryptographic verification of a cryptographically verifiable work’s traits (a rigorous accompaniment to writing “This work is unique” on a website, as seen above).
Decentralized identifiers offer the start of a fairly simple fix.
Creators need web3 identities that are not tied to any platform. They can use these identities to produce NFT works that cryptographically resolve into human-readable information. Decentralized identity can offer a missing trust layer of verifiable authorship for the $150 million NFT art market.
If we’re going to embrace the power of blockchain and decentralization, we’re going to need a real, usable ecosystem of client-side credentials to feed into a future world of stateless services. This means we need decentralized tools to help us verify the cryptographic signatures that give those credentials gravity.
This also means that we can have cryptographically verifiable authorship of NFTs.
Creators can use an Ethereum address attached to their decentralized identifier (DID) to issue NFTs. By using a DID for this process, the NFTs can be traced back to their author’s DID — and even the author’s human-readable name. When it comes to mass adoption, we must take a pragmatic approach and prioritize product user experience and ease of use as much as possible. Recognizing Ethereum addresses at a glance isn’t going to catch on, but a search engine to verify NFT authorship just might.
How do we get verifiable authorship for NFTs?
- NFT creators already use Ethereum addresses to mint NFTs. Now, they can easily use a DID to anchor their Ethereum address back to part of their identity expressed out in the world (through their website, their Twitter handle, and other facets of their social identity). This allows the artist to link their decentralized digital identity with their social identity, in a way that is not exclusively entrenched a single platform or service (like Facebook or Google), but rather represents them as a standalone individual within the web3 ecosystem.
- Creators can choose to have their DIDs, plus some affiliated human-readable information (such as a website, a twitter handle, etc.) show up in a public search engine when anyone searches for that name, NFT address they’ve created, or other credential related to that DID. These search results can also show all kinds of other identifiers from other blockchains, as well as service endpoints. Imagine a decentralized Google to help you search for NFTs, DIDs and other decentralized stuff.
- Creators can issue NFTs using the Ethereum addresses associated with these DIDs.
- Platforms selling NFTs can integrate a decentralized search API, so collectors can easily verify the authorship of the works they’re about to buy.
To make this new process as easy as possible to adopt, the Serto team is building:
- No-code tools for anyone, including NFT creators, to get started with verifiable authorship easily
- A search engine where users can find more about their NFT’s creator and beyond. We are creating an API to allow others to integrate this verification capability into their apps or marketplaces easily.
We weren’t planning to open up public access to our work so quickly, but given the amount of community requests we have received on this topic we have a surprise for you all.
We are now exposing an early version of Serto Search that offers the same robust level of verifiability that our upcoming production offering will provide. This lightweight beta product allows you to use this very article to perform some of the same trust exercises that will launch with Serto in production in Q3 2021. Check it out here.
To illustrate the full concept, we have minted this very article as an NFT.
When queried in Serto Search, the Ethereum address that minted the NFT of this article will resolve to the Ethereum address at our beta site in human-readable language.
This resolution, viewable on Serto search, shows that the owner of verify.serto.id minted the NFT containing this article.
This article’s NFT Contract Address: https://opensea.io/assets/0x495f947276749ce646f68ac8c248420045cb7b5e/1093475766599[…]815224463371928208160297282581054281833970161393562452578271233
Serto.id Decentralized Identifier (DID): did:ethr:0xf1c088Ff19301e660CE8B63F79675337e28963a4
Don’t just take our word for it. Try it yourself below.
Verify that this DID belongs to Serto.id: https://beta.search.serto.id/domain/verify.serto.id
Search for our DID on Serto Search: http://beta.search.serto.id/
We are doing usability testing for our beta search and would appreciate feedback from NFT users. Please contact us here to participate.
Are you an NFT creator?
Be among the first to create verifiable NFTs.
Do you have an application or NFT issuance/sale platform?
Integrate Serto’s NFT Search API to verify NFTs within your app.
Request more information from evin dot mcmullen at mesh dot xyz