Tag Archives: ICO

Section 17(b) of the Securities Act in Crowdfunding and Token Sales

Among the tricks of Wall Street bad guys is the fake financial analysis, prepared (and paid for) to promote a particular stock but presented as an objective review. Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 was written to stop that:

It shall be unlawful for any person. . . . to publish, give publicity to, or circulate any notice, circular, advertisement, newspaper, article, letter, investment service, or communication which, though not purporting to offer a security for sale, describes such security for a consideration received or to be received, directly or indirectly, from an issuer, underwriter, or dealer, without fully disclosing the receipt, whether past or prospective, of such consideration and the amount thereof [italics added].

It’s no joke. For example, in April 2017 the SEC brought an enforcement action charging 28 businesses and individuals for participating in a scheme to generate bullish articles on investment websites like SeekingAlpha.com, Benzinga.com, and SmallCapNetwork.com while concealing the compensation.  See Press Release, SEC: Payments for Bullish Articles on Stocks Must Be Disclosed to Investors, Rel. No. 2017-79 (Apr. 10, 2017).

Hypothetical examples in the Crowdfunding and token world:

  • NewCo pays an industry periodical to publish an article written by NewCo that purports to objectively rate the “Top 10 ICOs of 2018” and happens to list NewCo’s ICO as #1. Section 17(b) doesn’t make the article illegal, it just says the periodical has to disclose both the fact that it’s being paid and the amount of the payment.
  • If NewCo paid me to highlight its ICO on this blog, I’d have to report the compensation.
  • A real estate Crowdfunding platform sends an email promoting an offering, or a group of offerings, on its platform. That email is not covered by section 17(b) because of the italicized language above, i.e., it’s clear that the email is an offer of securities (which raises its own issues, separate from section 17(b)).
  • An investor relations firm places favorable articles about NewCo in trade publications while NewCo’s ICO is live. Those articles are covered by section 17(b).
  • A live event called “ICO Summit World” purports to highlight “The Most Promising ICOs of 2018,” but presents only companies that pay to play. Definitely covered by section 17(b).

My sense is that in the Crowdfunding world, and especially in the token world, there’s a lot of paid promotional activity going on without the disclosure required by section 17(b). The securities laws don’t apply to tokens, right?

Questions? Let me know.

The Bad News About ICOs Is Good News

Every day brings more bad news about ICOs: another class action lawsuit, another subpoena by the SEC, another “request for information” by a state Attorney General, another country that outlawed ICOs altogether.

The bad news is probably hurting the industry’s reputation and driving away investors in the short term. But from my perspective the bad news is, on balance, actually good.

The ICO market was crazy in 2017. Lawyers were giving questionable advice, investors were buying anything called a token, and the billions of dollars sloshing around attracted bad actors and instant-millionaires. People convinced themselves this was normal and justified, as they did with tulip bulbs in 1636.

From my perspective, the bad news in today’s headlines shows that the fog is clearing. Among the lessons learned:

  • ICOs were not, after all, a law unto themselves.
  • It’s easier to describe a network than to build one.
  • Some smart contracts are dumb.
  • Honesty is still the best policy with investors.
  • An honest cop is good for the neighborhood.
  • The laws of economics have not been repealed.

Most important, it turns out that there really is value in blockchain, even without the hype, and that real entrepreneurs are building serious value and finding it easier to connect with investors as the fog clears. Your Uber driver is no longer offering tips on Bitcoin, but you can do a legal ICO, there really is such thing as a utility token, and there are a lot of really smart folks building real companies that are going to disrupt and transform a lot of industries.

We’re going through a much-needed adjustment right now. It’s all good, as we young people say.

Questions? Let me know.

CROWDFUNDING AND CRYPTOCURRENCIES

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Cryptocurrencies are hot. And often the sale of cryptocurrencies is referred to as Crowdfunding. Unfortunately, the use of “cryptocurrencies” and “Crowdfunding” together creates confusion about both, along with some pretty serious legal risks.

We use “Crowdfunding” to mean raising money for a business or other venture online. We say “donation-based Crowdfunding” when we’re talking about Kickstarter, where people ask for donations. We say “equity-based Crowdfunding” when we’re talking about raising money from investors, who receive a stock certificate or some other security.

A cryptocurrency is, well, hard to pin down. It’s a transaction registered in a distributed, secure database. Because it exists in limited quantities and is secure, it has value. Like anything of value, it can be used as a currency. For purposes of this post, the key feature of a true cryptocurrency is that is has value of itself, like a nugget of gold.

You use Crowdfunding to sell shares of stock. Obviously, the paper certificates representing the shares of stock have no value by themselves, they have value only to evidence ownership in the business that issued the certificates or, more exactly, in the cash flow the business is expected to generate. So it wouldn’t make sense to say “I’m selling nuggets of gold using Crowdfunding.” The nuggets of gold have an intrinsic value without reference to the cash flow of anything else, or at least you hope they do. I can go shopping with a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum, just as I can shop with US dollars or, historically, with gold.

This is where things get tricky and words matter. The blockchain – the technology underlying all cryptocurrencies – can be used for a lot of things other than cryptocurrencies. As it happens, one of the things the blockchain can be used for is to keep track of stock certificates. In fact, the blockchain works so well keeping track of stock certificates that it will undoubtedly be used by (or replace) all public stock transfer agents within the next five years.

What’s happening today is that companies are selling what they call “cryptocurrencies” that are really just interests in the future operations of a business, i.e., really just hi-tech stock certificates. Cool, they’re using blockchain technology to keep track of who owns the company! But that doesn’t mean what you’re buying is really a cryptocurrency and that you’re going to get rich like the early buyers of Ethereum.

Words are powerful, and the confusion around cryptocurrencies is deepened by the nomenclature. Sales of cryptocurrencies are often referred to as “initial coin offerings,” or ICOs, which implies a similarity to “initial public offerings,” or IPOs. Yet if we’re being careful, the two have nothing in common. In an IPO a company sells its own securities, which have value only based on the success of the company. In an ICO somebody sells a product that has intrinsic value of itself.

Ignoring the difference is going to land someone in hot water, probably sooner rather than later. A company that sells something it calls a cryptocurrency but is really just a share of stock is selling a security, even if that company has an address near Palo Alto. And a company that sells a security is subject to all those pesky laws from the 1930s. If you sell a cryptocurrency that is really just a hi-tech stock certificate, then not only do you risk penalties from the SEC and state securities regulators, you’ll also face lawsuits from your investors if things don’t go as planned.

How to know whether you’re selling a true cryptocurrency or a hi-tech stock certificate? Here are some tips:

  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends on the success of the business, it’s a security.
  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends on, or is backed by, real estate or other property, it’s a security.
  • If the cryptocurrency is marketed as an investment, it’s probably a security.
  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends what the buyer does with it, rather than the success of the business, it’s probably not a security.
  • If the cryptocurrency merely gives the holder the right to participate in a group effort (g., the development of software), it’s probably not a security.
  • If you’re selling the cryptocurrency in lieu of issuing stock, it’s probably a security.
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