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Celebrity Prisoners Profit from NFT Sales of Their Work While Incarcerated

by Ed Lyon

Two high-profile prisoners made nonfungible token (NFT) sales of some prison memorabilia in December 2021, adding to both the notoriety and bottom line of Michael Cohen, one-time personal lawyer to former President Donald J. Trump (R), and Ross Ulbricht, founder of the dark web’s “Silk Road” site.

An NFT contains a photo or video of the item in a digital file encrypted with block-chain technology to prevent copying, making each one truly one-of-a-kind. In Cohen’s case the NFTs included his prisoner identification card, a video shot on a contraband cell phone of him writing his tell-all Disloyal in his cell, as well as a portion of the book’s original manuscript.

Cohen’s Warhol-esque 15 minutes of fame resulted not so much from his representation of the twice-impeached former president—for whom Cohen once said he’d “take a bullet”—but from a criminal conviction for tax fraud, bank fraud and campaign finance violations he confessed to committing for Trump. After finishing his prison sentence in November 2021, and no longer legally able to practice law, Cohen decided to market the items. Though considered worthless relics by some, the NFTs are being marketed by ArtGrails, which hosted a party in Miami’s design district on December 3, 2021, with Cohen on-hand via video to read some of the Disloyal manuscript.

Cohen, 55, sees himself by virtue of this sale as a “political figure,” despite never holding office. He calls what he is doing is a merger of “art, technology and politics all into one.”

Avery Andon, one of ArtGrails’ founders, said that “[m]ost political figures have shied away from [selling] NFTs so far,” but he predicted it will become “more pervasive.”

The other prisoner-NFT-artist, Ulbricht, is serving two life terms plus 40 years for money laundering and other crimes related to running Silk Road, the first Internet black market where users could buy and sell illegal drugs, falsified identity documents and trade other illegal goods using bitcoin currency. An early bitcoin pioneer, Ulbricht has a cult-hero status in part of the cryptocurrency world. He also has a Trump connection, having been snubbed in a request he made to the former President for clemency in 2020. [See: PLN, Oct. 2020, p.21.]

The 38-year-old’s artwork brought in more than $6 million through an online auction on December 9, 2021. The sale transferred the digital rights to ten of his works, including several paintings and drawings Ulbricht created while in prison, in addition to several childhood drawings. Another auction item was a painting of a skull, titled “Death,” whose sale included an essay Ulbricht wrote contemplating his mortality.

The proceeds from the auction are unlikely to violate “Son of Sam” laws, which aim to bar criminals from profiting off the notoriety of their crimes, according to Dan Novack, Chair of the New York State Bar Committee on Media Law. Because Ulbricht’s convictions were for non-violent offenses, he and his defense fund FreeRossDAO will be able to use the funds while he serves his prison terms.  

Sources: NBC News, Vanity Fair

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