We have previously written about the SEC’s case against LBRY, which offered a video sharing application. Its native token, LBC, was meant to be used by content creators and audience members on LBRY’s “content marketplace,” which billed itself as an alternative to YouTube. LBRY had a real business and real customers. But the SEC sued LBRY, claiming that it had conducted an unregistered offering of digital asset securities. LBRY tried to fight back aggressively, noting that it had been forced to spend more than $1 million in legal fees over three years of investigation and how the case was a threat to all blockchain companies under the same theory that the SEC used against them. But the court ruled against LBRY and held that the sale of LBC was an unregistered securities offering.
Although LBRY had filed an appeal, on October 19, 2003, it announced that it would not pursue the appeal and, instead, would shut down and be placed in receivership.
SEC Commissioners may express their opinions on whether the Commission should bring a particular lawsuit, but may not express their concerns publicly while the case is being litigated. Now that the LBRY case is over, Republican Commissioner Hester Pierce, who has been a long-time critic of the SEC’s regulation-by-enforcement practice, issued what she titled “Overdue: Statement of Dissent on LBRY.” Because it is relatively short, and delivers an important message in a direct way, it is reproduced below in full (though the footnotes have been omitted). The last paragraph is especially telling.
The Commission has brought many troubling crypto enforcement actions, but the LBRY, Inc. (“LBRY”) case has especially unsettled me. A statement on the case is overdue. I did not support bringing the case, but have been unable to speak publicly about my concerns while the case has been in litigation. Last week, after losing in federal district court on the question of whether the sale of LBRY tokens was an unregistered securities offering, LBRY announced that it will not move forward with an appeal of the decision. Instead, the company will shut down and its assets will be placed in receivership and used to satisfy its debts, including the civil money penalty owed to the Commission. Are investors and the market really better off now after the Commission’s litigation contributed to the demise of a company that had built a functioning blockchain with a real-world application running on top of it? This case illustrates the arbitrariness and real-life consequences of the Commission’s misguided enforcement-driven approach to crypto.
One does not have to dig deep to find fraudulent crypto projects that sold tokens with promises that they did nothing to fulfill. This sad reality makes the Commission’s decision to bring a case against LBRY especially puzzling. LBRY’s approach was more conservative than the approach many other projects took. Here, the blockchain was up and running at the time most tokens were sold, and the Commission’s complaint did not allege, and the court did not find, evidence of fraud. LBRY built a blockchain to facilitate data sharing, afford greater control to content creators, and make censorship more difficult. LBRY created a popular platform on the blockchain for sharing videos and other media. The open-source LBRY blockchain was available for anyone else to use. Why go after a company that sold a token for a functioning blockchain with an established use when we could have pursued plenty of other projects that were outright frauds and did not attempt to comply with the securities laws? To make matters worse, the Commission took an extremely hardline approach in this case. For example, after winning on summary judgment, the Commission sought monetary remedies of $44 million and asserted that LBRY’s offer to burn all tokens in its possession was not sufficient assurance that LBRY would not violate the registration provisions in the future. The Commission’s requested remedies were entirely out of proportion to any harm. Indeed, the court stated during the remedies hearing that “the absence of fraud allegations, [and] the fact that there was some measure of uncertainty” regarding the application of the securities laws when LBRY commenced its offering were facts that “should be taken into account when considering a penalty.” After the remedies hearing, the Commission pared its penalty request back to a significantly lower $111,614, which the court approved.
The application of the securities laws to token projects is not clear, despite the Commission’s continuous protestations to the contrary. There is no path for a company like LBRY to come in and register its functional token offering. Even if a company did manage to register its token offering, it would not be a particularly useful effort. Compliance with the securities laws is important because we want to ensure that people buying securities receive accurate and reliable information so they can assess the risks and rewards of an investment. Here, LBRY made significant disclosures outside of the registration process—disclosures that the Commission did not allege were fraudulent or misleading—and there is little to indicate that LBRY’s disclosures did not provide token purchasers with information adequate to assess whether the tokens were a good fit for them. The time and resources we expended on this case could have been devoted to building a workable regulatory framework that companies like LBRY could have followed. Then the market could have decided LBRY’s fate.
Even if, as the judge ruled here, the offering of tokens should have been registered, our scorched earth approach in remedying the violation was completely out of proportion to any investor harm. How does the result in this case protect LBRY investors, who likely would have preferred that the company continue to exist to support the blockchain, which is still in its infancy? The judge did not rule on whether the token itself was a security or on the status of secondary sales of LBRY tokens, which means that the LBRY blockchain may live on, but its path forward is difficult. The Commission’s action forced a group of entrepreneurs to abandon what they built. Our disproportionate reaction in this case will dissuade people from experimenting with blockchain technology, which LBRY aptly describes as “technology that enables dissent.” A government of a free people should welcome dissent and the technologies that enable it.
Earlier this year, LBRY tweeted: “It’s the year 2028, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been jailed for using illegally cryptocurrency instead of CBDCs, and Hester Pierce [sic] is still just writing dissenting memos.” Although I will be tending bees, not writing dissents, in 2028, I think often about the crux of that criticism and ask myself: “What could I do to help prevent another group of people with a big idea for changing the world from going through what LBRY has over the past several years?” I have not come up with an answer to that question; however, I urge people who have suggestions about how the Commission can right its course on crypto and innovation more broadly, to send them my way.