In late October, a New York district court refused to dismiss the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) indictment against defendant Nathaniel Chastain, who was charged with wire fraud and money laundering relating to his using insider knowledge to purchase non-fungible tokens (NFTs) prior to them being featured on OpenSea, an online NFT marketplace, and later selling them at a profit. (U.S. v. Chastain, No. 22-cr-305 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 21, 2022)). Despite the headlines and the fact that the DOJ’s press release labeled this enforcement as charges brought in “the first ever digital asset insider trading scheme,” the Chastain indictment was not actually based on the typical insider trading statutes involving securities law violations, but instead the federal wire fraud statute. Indeed, despite having an insider trading flavor, the word “security” does not appear in the indictment and the court, in refusing to dismiss the DOJ’s wire fraud claim, ruled that the Government’s wire fraud claim does not require the presence of a “security.”
With the enduring popularity of certain NFTs and the promise of their use in the Metaverse and beyond, the hype around the new technology has been accompanied by rising concerns over NFTs being the centerpiece of traditional financial crimes like money laundering and wire fraud. For example, on June 30th, 2022 the Justice Department indicted six individuals in four separate cryptocurrency fraud cases, which altogether involved over $130 million of investors’ funds. These indictments include allegations of a global Ponzi scheme selling unregistered crypto securities, a fraudulent initial coin offering involving phony associations with top companies, a fraudulent investment fund that purportedly traded on cryptocurrency exchanges, and the largest-known Non-Fungible Token (NFT) money laundering scheme to date.
UPDATE: On July 8, 2022, the USPTO and the Copyright Office responded to the Senators’ letter and indicated that they would conduct a joint study on the current and potential future applications of NFTs and their respective IP-related challenges.
With a market capitalization forecast of over $35 billion for 2022, there is no question that non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are hugely popular. Despite this, the intellectual property rubric underlying these NFT offerings are inconsistent, confusing, and in many cases in conflict with applicable law. These issues apparently came to the attention of Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who, in a June 9, 2022 letter (as per their roles as the Ranking Member and Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property), requested that the USPTO and the Copyright Office undertake a joint study that addresses a number of IP legal issues around NFTs. Citing those roles and their broader interest in the “continued development and use of emerging technologies,” the Senators requested that the study address the following non-exclusive list of questions:
Except for the extensive coverage surrounding Coinbase’s IPO last week and the volatility in the price of cryptocurrencies, much of the air in the crypto space in the last few months has been taken up by the meteoric rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). At this point, we will assume that readers have at least a basic familiarity with NFTs. If not, we suggest a review of this SNL skit, as it is actually a pretty good summary.
It seems like new articles appear on a daily basis addressing some aspect of the legal issues associated with the NFT phenomenon. Interestingly, however, there have been few articles and little attention paid to what ultimately might be the most interesting development in this space, that is, the rise of fractional NFTs (F-NFTs).
F-NFTs Stir Up New Issues
Given that many NFTs are selling for significant amounts of money (in both fiat and digital currencies), the idea of fractionalization is taking shape to allow smaller investors to pool resources to purchase fractional interests of a NFT. Additionally, there is great interest in the opportunity to buy fractional interests of large NFT collections. For example, it was recently reported that a collection of fifty CryptoPunks, which are early, now valuable NFT pixel art collectibles, were fractionalized into millions of tokens. The interest in fractionalization is not surprising given the high sale price of some NFTs and the widespread adoption of crowdfunding in many areas in e-commerce and investing.
Beyond mere entry into the market, purchasers can hold onto an F-NFT in the hope of seeing investment gains or realizing dividends, or else sell the F-NFT (from a technical perspective, referred to as a “shard”) to another investor. Several entities have emerged to facilitate the sale of F-NFTs to unlock liquidity in the market and create and trade fractions of NFTs. For example, the NFT trading platform Niftex states that it allows owners to break NFTs into shards for purchase at a fixed price, with the fractions able to be subsequently traded in the market. The site also states that it allows shard owners some local governance rights on the platform with respect to a particular fraction set and provides an investor with a certain percentage of shards who wishes to own the entire digital asset with a method to bid on the remaining shards.
As most anything can be reduced to an NFT, it’s interesting to think of the possibilities of fractionalization. Now that the buying and trading of cryptocurrency has become mainstream, with major fintech platforms having begun to allow users to buy, sell or hold crypto and more and more decentralized finance (or DeFi) and decentralized applications (DApps) being developed to offer new digital solutions for various financial transactions, the continued fractionalization of NFTs is almost inevitable.
But is it legal?