Safeguarding digital art

Imagine showing up to the prom in what you thought was a one-of-a-kind designer dress only to see another girl across the room wearing the Exact. Same. Thing. Oh, the embarrassment!

Now, imagine instead of a dress you just invested in an original piece of art from an up-and-coming artist. If it’s a sculpture or painting you can generally be assured it’s not counterfeit, or a cheap knockoff or print that’s been mass-produced. But what if you want to purchase a piece of digital art? What’s protecting your investment, not to mention the work of the artist, from being shared all over the Web as “original” art?

Two former UW–Madison students are tackling this unique problem with the aim of safeguarding the work of digital artists for buyers and sellers alike.

QuHarrison Terry and Ryan Cowdrey, both just 20, launched their online digital art marketplace, 23VIVI.com, in December 2015 and have been focused on bringing new professional digital artists onboard ever since.

With its recent acceptance into gener8tor’s eighth startup accelerator program, which began Feb. 12 with five new startups, 23VIVI is already earning legitimacy in the marketplace.

Betting on themselves

At 20 years old, you’d probably expect Terry and Cowdrey to be attending classes at UW–Madison rather than starting their own company. Up until a few months ago you’d be right.

Terry, who was pursuing a degree at UW–Madison in computer science, and Cowdrey, who was attending the UW for business and marketing, both left school to work on 23VIVI full-time this past fall.

It was a bold decision, but probably not as crazy as you’d think.

For starters, Terry and Cowdrey already have experience in this realm. Cowdrey previously co­founded ConstructedBy.com, a platform that aims to aid creative entrepreneurial millennials by connecting them with professionals in their field, while Terry bootstrapped an early iteration of 23VIVI in Artsy Promoter, an advertising platform for artists to showcase their work. In just one year, Artsy Promoter amassed a network of over 17,000 artists. Prior to 23VIVI, Terry also worked in marketing for EatStreet.

Terry acknowledges being scared initially, especially, he says, because “you hear about these kids who had solid ideas and jumped off cliffs to achieve their brilliant startup dreams …” and then are never heard from again.

But both young men point to the rising cost of college as one reason why their decision wasn’t so difficult.

“I realized that I no longer had this $30,000 bill looming over my head per year, so financially it was pleasant,” explains Cowdrey. “However, now I’m really realizing the ‘startup life,’ where you’re scrounging around your dollars to get a slice of pizza.”

“Currently, collegiate education is too expensive,” remarks Terry. “I struggled mentally with the concept of paying this enormous bill where I only learned concepts and theories.”

“I don’t think it’s crucial or necessary for entrepreneurs to drop out of school,” notes Cowdrey. “In my mind it’s all about timing. We noticed an opportunity that was nascent and waiting for people to make moves in, so it was more so a matter of, ‘If we don’t do this now, we never will.’ I think there is always room for entrepreneurial programs in schools to help kids grow a business while in school, in lieu of classes.”

Both Cowdrey and Terry say they plan on going back to school at some point to complete their degrees, though Cowdrey notes he may eschew business for something more creative.

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Protecting fine digital art

Digital artwork involves more than just creative-types playing around with Photoshop. A lot more.

Cowdrey says the digital art market is currently valued around $2.64 billion and is growing at 19% annually.

“To give you perspective of the opportunity, though, the entire art industry is worth about $53 billion,” Cowdrey notes. “We decided to start with art first because it’s the perfect niche, but our tech could be applied to any form of scarce digital assets. The concept of selling limited digital goods today is bizarre; however, today if you want to write a physical book and only make one edition and sell it for $100,000 there’s nothing stopping you from doing so. This isn’t currently possible for creatives who create natively in a digital format. Ideally the market potential for this is huge if we can sustain the right momentum.”

There are a variety of websites already selling digital art — Artsy is among the largest — but what sets 23VIVI apart is its blockchain authentication technology.

The blockchain is form of encryption that can protect any digital asset, from currency to art and more. Terry and Cowdrey say this sets 23VIVI apart because now collectors and artists can prove provenance of a digital masterpiece and people understand that they are actually getting an original.

“In the art world, it is a huge deal to collectors that they get an edition that was actually created by the artist. With the implementation of blockchain, we can now prove that for digital creations,” Terry and Cowdrey explain.

Providing an online marketplace

Currently, 23VIVI sells still digital images along with GIFs. Cowdrey and Terry say they will also be exploring longer video art, as well. It’s fairly simple for artists to create a GIF out of a still image, and they’re encouraging digital artists to do this because it’s something that is so unique of the digital medium.

A screenshot of the 23VIVI digital wallet Web app.

Cowdrey says 23VIVI is still working to bring on legitimate artists. He’s spent the past three months immersing himself in digital art to really get a feel for what it is and what is trending right now.

“From there, we have developed an aesthetic, called VIVI VIBES, that we look for in artists and we reach out to artists that fit our mold,” Cowdrey says.

The way in which 23VIVI’s online marketplace connects creators of digital-native art with buyers is relatively simple.

Artists upload their digital artwork to the site and can list up to 23 editions per piece to create scarcity and value. When a piece is sold the artist receives a 50% commission; 23VIVI receives the other 50%.

Buyers can browse the site and purchase the digital artwork directly. Once a buyer has selected a work to buy, they can choose their delivery method — native digital file, print, or HDMI drive — and each edition purchased is accompanied by a blockchain certificate of authenticity.

A unique wrinkle offered by 23VIVI is a resale marketplace allowing digital art owner to resell their digital-native art on the 23VIVI marketplace, which allows the new buyer to also receive a blockchain certificate of authenticity and track the piece’s ownership history — just like a traditional work of art.

In its first month 23VIVI generated more than $1,500 in revenue and sold 45 editions of original digital artwork.

“This year we simply want to gain traction selling digital editions and validate what we’re doing,” says Cowdrey.” They’re already hard at work gathering new art to do another release by the first week of March.

Oh, and that name? It’s a sign Terry and Cowdrey have the perspective needed to stick with this venture for the long haul. They say they arrived at 23VIVI because “vivi” means life in Italian and 23 is an enigmatic number with ties to death. “So every time one digital masterpiece dies, another one comes to life.”

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