Legal Issues Surrounding Digital Asset Airdrops
Given the regulatory scrutiny on initial coin offerings, many digital asset company sponsors (those launching an ICO token/product/security/utility/etc) have been looking for ways to get their assets in the hands of a large number of people to begin creating network effects so the digital asset become valuable. One way to accomplish this is through an “airdrop” where the sponsor gives away the digital asset to certain persons under certain circumstances. Airdrops come in many shapes and forms – in some, the sponsor deposits only the digital asset they have created and in others a sponsor or other third party might deposit a variety of digital assets created by different groups. Some airdrops require users to do something (sign up for a list or tweet a link related to the sponsor) and some are done for “free”. In any event, there are potentially securities laws issues related to the airdrops and any transactions in the digital asset after the airdrop. The below analysis is intended as a broad overview, but each airdrop should be considered in light of its facts and circumstances. Additionally, the regulation of airdrops, including how they may be taxed, is beginning to evolve and subject to change.
Potential Application of Securities Laws to Airdrops
The legal status of digital assets is uncertain and continually developing – whether a token is a security ultimately depends on the particulars of each token. Given recent statements by the SEC, however, it is safest to assume that any airdropped tokens are securities. The public offering or sales of securities must be registered with the SEC or qualify for an exemption, though many token companies are not complying with these requirements. As a result, a number of these airdrops may be violating securities laws, even if the teams behind the assets claim they are not securities, or if they do not realize their activities fall within the scope of the securities laws. In light of this, the following legal issues may apply to an airdrop:
- Transfer Restrictions – Even if a token qualifies for an exemption from registration with the SEC, it may be subject to transfer restrictions. For example, many securities are exempt from SEC registration via the private placement exemption under Regulation D (also known as “Reg D”), which requires a certain holding period (e.g. 6-12 months) before a purchaser can transfer the securities. While the Reg D exemption applies to purchases and sales of securities, the Reg D holding restrictions may apply because the SEC may view the exchange of personal information and/or public promotion as payment. In light of this, the recipients of digital assets (unknowingly) may be restricted from transferring those assets and should be careful.
- Free Stock Enforcement Actions – In the late 1990’s the SEC brought enforcement actions in cases of “free stock” offerings. In such instances, companies gave out “free” stock in exchange for something of value to the company. For example, recipients provided personal information, solicited additional investors, and linked to issuers’ websites. The SEC was concerned that investors were not receiving full and fair disclosures about the securities. Airdrops resemble free stock since the airdrop teams give “free” tokens, often in exchange for information like email addresses or social media shares. Additionally, these airdrop programs are often promoted in mediums such as Telegram chats where disclosures are entirely absent. Because of these similarities with free stock, the SEC could bring enforcement actions against the sponsors of the airdrops in the future.
- Broker-Dealer Regulations – Generally, a broker is anyone that engages in securities transactions on behalf of another person for compensation, and must be registered with the SEC. If a team airdrops digital assets on behalf of other token companies, it could be deemed a broker if it receives compensation for the airdrop. This compensation could take the form of tokens or marketing services from issuers of the airdropped assets.
- Underwriter Liability – An underwriter is someone that acts on behalf of a securities issuer, for example, by distributing securities of the issuer. Depending on the circumstances, underwriters can be liable for an issuer’s securities violations. If an airdrop team deposits tokens that are issued by another company, it could also be liable for the securities violations of that company, which very well may be the case, as described above.
- Pump & Dump – Pump and dump schemes occur when an organized group coordinates to artificially change the price of an asset. The SEC and CFTC have issued warnings about token pump and dump schemes, and the SEC has already pursued certain groups for these schemes. In light of this, airdrop announcements and marketing materials will likely be subject to heightened scrutiny by the SEC and CFTC.
- KYC/AML – Know Your Customer (“KYC”) and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) laws are aimed at combatting money laundering and bribery and require certain due diligence on clients. KYC and AML regulations typically apply to banks, broker-dealers, FINRA members, and other financial institutions, as well as large cash transactions. Many token exchanges already implement KYC and AML procedures, for example, by requiring new users to upload a driver’s license in order to prove their identities. It’s possible that an airdrop team may be subject to KYC and AML requirements such that it would need to verify the identity of each recipient.
As the digital asset industry becomes more aware of the securities laws and the nuances of the application of those laws to the digital asset space, sponsors of digital assets are working to make sure their business plan and token distribution structure fit within the laws. While airdrops (“free tokens”) seem like one way to get around certain securities laws, there are still risks and sponsors should vet any potential distribution, even if free, with legal counsel. We do expect to see a wider variety of token offering structures used in the future, including Regulation A+ which has fewer restrictions on securities transfers.
Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds and works routinely on matters affecting the digital asset industry. Please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345 if you have any questions on this post.