Is a Utility Token ICO a Sale of Securities?
November 06, 2017
Bloomberg reported on October 16 that over $3 billion dollars have been raised in over 200 initial coin offerings so far this year. It remains to be seen whether the pace of ICOs will slow down in the face of regulatory headwinds such as the outright ICO bans in China and South Korea. Here in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been sounding alarm bells. On July 25, the SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued a Report of Investigation finding that tokens offered and sold by a virtual organization known as “The DAO” were securities and therefore subject to the federal securities laws. I blogged about it here. On the same day the SEC issued the report, its Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an investor bulletin to make investors aware of potential risks of participating in ICOs. Then on September 29, it charged a businessman and two companies with defrauding investors in a pair of ICOs purportedly backed by investments in real estate and diamonds. And on November 1, it issued a “Statement on Potentially Unlawful Promotion of Initial Coin Offerings and Other Investments by Celebrities and Others”, warning that any celebrity or other individual who promotes a virtual token or coin that is a security must disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion.
Needless to say, the days of ICOs flying below the SEC’s radar are over, and developers conducting token sales to fund the development of a network need to be aware of the securities law implications of the sale. In its Report of Investigation, the SEC made clear (what most of us suspected all along) that the traditional Howey test for determining whether a funding mechanism is an ”investment contract” and thus a “security” applies to blockchain based tokens. I won’t go into a deep dive here. For those wanting to jump into the weeds, Debevoise has done a pretty good job on this. But the basic test under Howey is that an agreement constitutes an investment contract that meets the definition of a “security” if there is (i) an investment of money, (ii) in a common enterprise, (iii) with an expectation of profits, (iv) solely from the efforts of others.
It’s useful to consider that blockchain tokens fall generally into two broad categories. “Securities tokens” are basically like shares in a corporation or membership interests in a limited liability company where the purchaser receives an economic right to a proportional share of distributions from profits or a sale of the company. On the other hand, “utility tokens” don’t purport to offer purchasers an interest or share in the seller entity itself but rather access to the product or service the seller is developing or has developed. Unfortunately, there exists virtually no SEC or case law guidance on securities law aspects of utility tokens. The token at issue in the SEC’s investigative report on The DAO was a securities token. The DAO was a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain that operated like a virtual venture fund. Purchasers would share in profits from the DAO’s investments and so the tokens were like limited partnership interests.
The question of whether utility tokens are securities may turn on whether the blockchain network for which the tokens will function is fully functional or still in development, and an interesting debate has emerged as to whether there should be a bright line test on that basis.
One side of the debate, advanced by Cooley (Marco Santori) and Protocol Labs (Juan Batiz-Benet and Jesse Clayburgh), is that purchasers of utility tokens prior to network launch and before genuine utility necessarily rely on the managerial and technical efforts of the developers to realize value from their tokens. Accordingly, agreements for the sale of pre-functional tokens meet the “expectation of profit” and “through the efforts of others” prongs of Howey and should be characterized as securities. On the other hand, fully functional utility tokens should not be considered securities because they fail the “through the efforts of others” prong of Howey and maybe even the “expectation of profit” prong. Purchasers of fully functional tokens are likely to be people seeking access to the seller’s network as consumers or app developers with any expectation of profit from appreciation of the tokens being a secondary motivation, so the expectation of profit prong of Howey fails as to those purchasers. The same conclusion should apply even as to the other type of purchaser who is motivated primarily by the prospect of a token resale for profit because the profit that is hoped for is not expected to come through the managerial or entrepreneurial efforts of the developers, but rather through the many different independent forces that drive supply and demand for the tokens. There is a line of cases involving contracts for the purchase of commodities holding that they are not securities because the expectation of profit was solely from fluctuations in the secondary market, and not from any efforts on the part of the producer. Fully functional tokens are analogous to commodities in that the token developers have completed development of the network, and so there should not be any expectation that profit will result from any further efforts by the seller.
On the other side of the debate is Debevoise, which advocates for a facts and circumstances approach, rejects the bright line test of whether or not a utility token is fully functional and offers several arguments. The determination of whether an agreement is an investment contract and thus a security has long been based upon a facts and circumstances analysis. A blockchain token is not a homogenous asset class; a token could be a digital representation of an equity or debt security but it could also represent things like hospital records or a person’s identity, and that particular character of the token is unaffected by whether the network is or is not fully functional. Also, there is an implicit recognition in the JOBS Act that pre-order sales on non-equity crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not sales of securities, and that pre-functional utility token sales should be analyzed the same way. It also questions whether agreements by a mature company to presell a new product in development would automatically be deemed an investment contract. Finally, there’s the difficulty of determining when exactly a token is fully-functional given the complexity of software and network development.
Seems to me that the arguments on both sides of the utility token debate have merit. I do think there’s a distinction, though, between pre-order sales of product by a mature company and a sale of pre-functional tokens, in that the tokens most likely can be sold on a secondary market, with any profit likely resulting from the entrepreneurial efforts of the developer. I also think that until we have guidance from the SEC and/or judicial opinions on the issue, the better approach is to treat clearly pre-functional tokens as investment contracts and conduct their sale under an exemption from registration.