Blockchain and the Law

From Cryptic to (Some) Clarity: English Law and Policy Rising to the Challenge of Cryptoassets (Part 3)

In the first two instalments of our series we examined the progress of English law to provide a secure and certain legal infrastructure for cryptoasset investment and management. In particular, we looked at how recent English case law has addressed the following questions:

(1) Are cryptoassets property and (2) Can cryptoassets be held on trust? (see Part 1 here)  (3) Where are cryptoassets located for the purposes of securing jurisdiction over claims and remedies? (see Part 2 here).

To recap, a line of recent cases has now made clear that English law recognises cryptocurrencies as property. Although there is no direct English decision on this point yet, there appears to be no reason why cryptocurrencies could not be held on trust. In terms of the location of cryptocurrencies, and therefore securing jurisdiction of the English courts, whether that is the place where the person or company who owns them is domiciled, or where they are resident probably remains open for debate.

In this third (and final) part of the series, we preview potential legal initiatives which are designed to continue building the legal infrastructure for digital assets in the UK, including initiatives such as the UK Law Commission’s Digital Assets Project and the UK Jurisdictional Taskforce’s (UKJT) Digital Dispute Resolution Rules. Continue Reading

From Cryptic to (Some) Clarity: English Law and Policy Rising to the Challenge of Cryptoassets (Part 2)

In the first part of this series of articles, we examined the progress of English law to shape and build an infrastructure to support the development of a secure and certain environment for investment in digital assets. We considered how recent English case law has addressed the questions of whether cryptoassets are property, and whether they can be held on trust.

In this second instalment, we review jurisdictional issues relating to digital assets.

Where are cryptoassets located?

Where assets are located in the eyes of the law is relevant to questions of what governing law applies to them, the Court’s determination of its own jurisdiction (including the appropriate forum for a claim to be resolved) and questions of service of court documents outside the jurisdiction. Crypto-disputes raise questions of where cryptocurrency exchanges are located, the identification and location of defendants, and where cryptoassets (which have no traditional physical form) are situated.

The law of the jurisdiction in which property which is subject to litigation is located is referred to as the lex situs of the property. In general terms, Courts determine the lex situs of land and chattels based on their (physical) location, and in respect of enforceable personal rights over property (known as choses in action) where they are recoverable or can be enforced. Given their intangible nature, determining the lex situs of cryptoassets is a question the English Courts have needed to grapple with sooner or later.

The Ion Science Ltd v Persons Unknown (unreported, 21 December 2020) case presented an opportunity to do so. It suggested that for the purposes of English law the lex situs of cryptocurrency is the place where the person or company who owns it is domiciled.[1] This approach was followed in Fetch.ai Ltd and another v Persons Unknown Category A and others[2] as part of the Court’s consideration of whether to grant permission for the claimants to serve proceedings outside the jurisdiction. (In that case, the claimants were then able to obtain a worldwide freezing order and proprietary injunctive relief against unknown fraudsters, among other orders.) Continue Reading

Biden Administration Proposes Changes to the Taxation of Cryptocurrency Transactions

On March 28, 2022, the Biden Administration proposed certain very limited changes to the taxation of cryptocurrency transactions. The proposals do not change the current treatment of cryptocurrency as property for federal income tax purposes, and do not address any of the fundamental tax issues that cryptocurrency raise.

Read the full post on our Tax Talks blog.

From Cryptic to (Some) Clarity: English Law and Policy Rising to the Challenge of Cryptoassets (Part 1)

Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Master of the Rolls, wants English law to be at the forefront of developments relating to cryptoassets and smart contracts. In his thought-provoking foreword to the government-backed UK Jurisdictional Taskforce’s (UKJT) Legal Statement on Cryptoassets and Smart Contracts, he explained that English law should aim to provide “much needed market confidence, legal certainty and predictability in areas that are of great importance to the technological and legal communities and to the global financial services industry” as well as to “demonstrate the ability of the common law in general, and English law in particular, to respond consistently and flexibly to new commercial mechanisms.” He returned to the same theme in a speech on 24 February 2022 at the launch of the Smarter Contracts report by the UKJT in which he said “[m]y hope is that English law will prove to be the law of choice for borderless blockchain technology as its take up grows exponentially in the months and years to come”.

The law defines whether and how an owner can find and recover a stolen asset, whether a contract about an asset can be enforced and whether rights are owed between parties in relation to an asset.  English law has traditionally been very flexible in fashioning remedies to uphold contracts and to allow parties to preserve and follow (trace) assets – by interim protective relief in the form of injunctions, disclosure orders against third parties (Banker’s Trust orders), by recognising trusts over assets and by the English Courts accepting jurisdiction over claims in the first place.  If English law allows owners of cryptoassets to access these remedies, it should provide the “market confidence, legal certainty and predictability” described by Sir Geoffrey Vos. In this article, we explore the extent to which recent developments in English law have furthered these objectives and address in turn:

  • Are cryptoassets property?
  • Can cryptoassets be held on trust?

In the second part of this series, we will review recent developments concerning jurisdictional issues relating to digital assets and in the third part we will preview key legal and policy developments which are in the pipeline. Continue Reading

SEC to Hire More Staff in Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit and Ratchet Up Scrutiny of Industry

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced today that it would hire 20 additional positions to the Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit (formerly known as the Cyber Unit) within the Division of Enforcement, increasing the number of dedicated positions to 50. The “Crypto Unit” is tasked with protecting investors in crypto markets and from cyber-related threats.  With more personnel and resources available, the SEC believes the unit will be “better equipped to police wrongdoing in the crypto markets” while still staying involved in disclosure and controls issues with respect to cybersecurity.

According to the release, the 20 additional hires will include supervisors, investigative staff attorneys and fraud analysts, with a focus on investigating securities law violations in: crypto asset offerings, exchanges, and lending and staking products; decentralized finance (“DeFi”) platforms; non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”); and stablecoins.

As we stated in a recent post, statements and proposals by financial regulators suggest that providers should expect more scrutiny and additional compliance hurdles going forward. Continue Reading

European Central Bank Executive Board Member Decries “Crypto Gamble” and Echoing SEC Chair Gensler, Calls for Regulation of the “New Wild West” of Crypto-Assets

In a speech given this week at Columbia University by Fabio Panetta, Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank (ECB), he decried the entire “crypto gamble,” seeing crypto-assets as “bringing about instability and insecurity – the exact opposite of what they promised” and calling for tighter regulation in the EU (and coordination with international partners) to curb the financial and associated risks from crypto-assets.

Panetta’s speech (entitled “For a few cryptos more: the Wild West of crypto finance”) evoked remarks made by SEC Chair Gary Gensler back in August 2021 that labeled crypto the “Wild West” and requested Congress give the Commission more authority “to write rules for and attach guardrails to crypto trading and lending” that would boost consumer trust and allow the industry to prosper.  Panetta’s scathing broadside was lobbed against what he sees as the risky, seamier side of crypto – the speculative fervor and greed, the high volatility of crypto markets, the facilitation of criminal financial activity, the lack of adequate disclosures, the largely unregulated or “insufficiently supervised” cryptocurrency miners and service providers, and other un- or under-regulated aspects of the “crypto bubble” that, if left ignored, could pose risks to financial stability (citing the sub-prime mortgage market that triggered the last global financial crisis). While far more strident in tone than President Biden’s March 2022 executive order, Panetta’s speech similarly articulated a high-level strategy for regulating and fostering innovation in the burgeoning digital assets space and pushed for central banks to move more quickly to develop central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and “respond to the people’s growing demand for digital assets and a digital currency by making sovereign money fit for the digital age” or else sit by as the private sector satisfies this demand.

Taking a wide view, Fabio Panetta’s remarks, coupled with the multiple crypto-related regulatory developments ongoing both in the EU and U.S., suggest that some changes are afoot for the crypto industry. While there has been some industry-friendly legislation at the state level in recent years to encourage innovation, at the federal level it seems that the honeymoon period of light touch or no regulation (or largely, regulation by agency enforcement) for the crypto industry is over. Innovation in this space continues at a furious pace at the same time as regulators are slowly gaining experience and expertise about the public policy and investor risks surrounding crypto-assets. Thus, providers should expect more scrutiny and additional compliance hurdles going forward, as multiple regulators have stated that the lasting innovations and societal benefits of cryptocurrencies and DeFi applications can only occur alongside responsible regulation. Panetta stated that pulling off such responsible oversight will not be easy, as there will be “complex trade-offs, balancing the goals of promoting innovation, preserving financial stability and ensuring consumer protection.” Continue Reading

As NFTs Blur the Line Between “Receipt” and “Product”, Trademarks Owners Fight Over New Virtual Markets

Last month, our post about art NFTs and the DMCA highlighted the distinction between non-fungible tokens and the copyrighted works they represent. In the context of copyright, this dichotomy is generally uncontroversial: In most cases, an NFT merely points to an underlying work but does not contain a copy of the work it represents, and so it is conceptually and legally separate from that work for copyright purposes. But NFTs can be used to signify ownership of products beyond digital artworks—and where those products involve trademarks, new legal issues arise.

Enter Nike: On February 3, the apparel and footwear giant sued StockX, an online resale marketplace for sneakers and other collectibles, in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging trademark infringement in connection with StockX’s issuance of NFTs featuring Nike sneakers. In the complaint, Nike asserts that these Nike-branded “Vault NFTs”—which StockX’s website says merely track ownership of a physical pair of sneakers in the company’s possession, like a virtual claims ticket or receipt—are in fact “new virtual products.” (Nike v. StockX LLC, No. 22-00983 (S.D.N.Y. filed Feb. 3, 2022)). In their March 31 answer, StockX reasserts their website’s position and insists that “Vault NFTs are absolutely not ‘virtual products’ or digital sneakers” (emphasis in original). StockX instead claims that the Vault NFTs are merely a convenient use of new technology that allows buyers to track ownership without having to possess the physical sneaker, such that the “owner can make a future trade without incurring transaction costs, delay, or risk of damage or loss associated with shipping physical sneakers to StockX and then to the ultimate recipients.” Continue Reading

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