Hot Takes

Good news: Ethereum’s CryptoKitties are probably not securities.

Ethereum just got overrun with cats; the cats are literally slowing down the network with their feline machinations, their idiosyncratic personalities, and yes, their breeding… lots of cat breeding… on Ethereum. The cats are called CryptoKitties. Just like bitcoins or ether, CryptoKitties are peer-to-peer tradeable, provably scarce digital items that are accounted for by an open blockchain network. Unlike those cryptocurrencies, each item (each kitty) is unique with its own set of attributes: striped, droopy-eyed, slow (yes, slow is one), and many more.

Rather like some of the ICOs you might have read about, there is a company that is selling some of these digital items and financing its operation from those sales. From their FAQ:

The CryptoKitties team releases a new “Gen 0” CryptoKitty every fifteen minutes (up until November 2018). The starting price of “Gen 0” CryptoKitties is determined by the average price of the last five CryptoKitties that were sold, plus 50%.

There are complicated and controversial legal arguments about why some ICOs might be unregistered securities issuance while other might not be. The SEC has yet to offer a bright line test but has identified a few specific projects as securities and indicated that it looks to the flexible test for an “investment contract,” the so-called Howey Test, in order to determine whether any particular token sale is securities issuance. Our framework for securities regulation of cryptocurrencies has outlined the nuts and bolts of that standard and advocated for an innovation friendly approach since 2015.

CryptoKitties look less like securities under that flexible test for a few reasons. One important prong of the test is whether buyers are relying on the managerial efforts of others for profits. First of all, CryptoKitties aren’t marketed as profit-making investments, and ownership of a Cryptokitty doesn’t give you a right to dividends or revenue streams from the Cryptokitty team or anyone else for that matter. Sure people might hope that they can flip a kitty for a profit but people feel that way about other non-securities like real estate, gold, or (appropriately) beanie babies. And sure you can breed two kitties to get more cats which you could of course sell, but that alone certainly doesn’t make them securities any more than real life purebred pets.

This is starting to sound a bit like an actual case about securities law and real life animals, the case was SEC vs. Weaver Beaver (yes, that’s the actual name). Here’s Bob Davenport, a regional director of the SEC back in the 1970s:

The beaver case was a case called SEC versus Weaver’s Beaver Association. One defendant appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied cert. A fellow in the Salt Lake area started a company called Weaver’s Beaver Association. They sold pairs of beaver, all over the United States and in foreign countries. These were purportedly domesticated beaver. You would buy a pair of beaver for several thousand dollars, and these beaver would have little beavers, called kits. Then these little kits would grow up, and they’d have more kits. And you would end up with this large herd of beaver. The beaver were to be sold to other purchasers. They had a marketing arm, where they would sell your pairs of beaver. There was going to be a tremendous demand for beaver pelts in coats, beaver hats, and everything—it’s coming back. So they sold millions and millions of dollars of these beaver. The salesmen represented that you could take possession of your beaver, and you can raise them in your own backyard, but if you don’t have the capabilities, we have beaver ranches all through the West—Montana, Wyoming, et cetera.

It didn’t end well:

We’ll take care of your beaver for you for a hundred and fifty or a hundred seventy-five dollars per beaver per year, until you can sell it. Nobody could take care of beaver; you can’t put it in your bathtub. The purchasers would have to leave the beaver on the ranches. What happened was that all these beaver and their kits that was being sold to people could not be re-sold, because the Association was too busy selling their own beaver to take time to sell your beaver.

So these people ended up with a large number of beaver, and they’re paying all these ranching fees. It was just a disaster. They really weren’t selling domesticated beaver; instead they were flying the beaver down from Canada and purchasing them from trappers in Canada at approximately twenty dollars a beaver. They’d fly them into Salt Lake, put tattoos in their back foot, in the web, and start selling them. They’d sell them for three thousand a pair and up.

The SEC came after Weaver Beaver because it was clear that the economic reality of the scheme wasn’t just beaver sales! Weaver was selling shares of a “profitable” beaver farm. You weren’t buying a beaver to take it home with you; you were buying it to get rich, and you relied on Weaver to take care of your beavers, breed them, sell the kits and give you the profits. Nobody actually took delivery of their beaver (you are shocked, I know).

So why are CryptoKitties different? Because you can and do actually take delivery of your CryptoKitty. You don’t have to keep them in your bathtub, you just connect to the open Ethereum network and check up on the blockchain to find your cats. You don’t have to rely on the CryptoKitty team to take care of your cats or breed them for you, the cats don’t eat and “breeding” is just an ethereum transaction that you (and only you) can make by using any free and compatible Ethereum software client and by signing the transaction with your Ethereum private keys. And you don’t rely on the CryptoKitty team to find buyers for your cats, or buy them back from you, all sales are peer-to-peer and any ethereum user in the world can find you and offer to buy your little bundles of kitty joy (or breed with it!). Also there’s no sad beaver relocation, caging, and tattooing, just happy little bits of digital fur ball coursing over the world’s increasingly renowned global computer, Ethereum. That last one isn’t part of the Howie Test but it makes me happy to live in the future we got.

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There is hidden tax guidance between the lines of recent IRS educational letters to cryptocurrency users.

On July 26, the IRS announced it was sending “educational” letters to more than 10,000 taxpayers that the agency suspects “failed to report income and pay the resulting tax from virtual currency transactions or did not report their transactions properly.” Commissioner Charles P. Rettig added that taxpayers “should take these letters very seriously by reviewing their tax filings and when appropriate, amend past returns and pay back taxes, interest and penalties.”

This initiative is somewhat surprising. Commissioner Rettig acknowledged in May that the agency has not yet provided taxpayers with “clarity on basic issues related to the taxation of virtual currency transactions," including fundamental questions such as how taxpayers should calculate the tax basis of their cryptocurrencies and how they should assign those bases to cryptocurrency dispositions. Commissioner Rettig has assured Congress and other stakeholders that substantive guidance will be coming “soon,” although there continues to be no mention of it in the agency’s “Priority Guidance Plan,” which lists “guidance items that are most important to taxpayers and tax administration.”

More surprisingly, perhaps, is that the threelettertemplates the agency released seem to contain answers to some of the open questions about the tax treatment of cryptocurrency transactions that it has failed to articulate in guidance. Two key examples:

  1. Notice 2014-21 says that “taxpayers will be required to determine the fair market value of virtual currency in U.S. dollars as of the date of payment or receipt.” We have previously noted that requiring fair market value calculations to be conducted using a daily exchange rate, rather than allowing for more precise methodologies, often doesn’t make sense, particularly for virtual currencies that have significant intraday exchange rate movements. The recently released Letters 6174 and 6174-A, however, instruct taxpayers to “report the virtual currency received at its fair market value, measured in U.S. dollars, as of the date and time of the transaction.” (Emphasis added.)

  2. Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code stipulates that no gain or loss need be recognized when certain types of property of “like kind” are exchanged. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 narrowed this exception to only apply to real estate exchanges starting in 2018, but it has been an open question whether or not certain virtual currency transactions that occurred before then would qualify. However, all three of the letters the IRS released—which address tax years 2013 to 2017–state that “an exchange of a virtual currency (such as Bitcoin, Ether, etc.) includes the use of the virtual currency to pay for goods, services, or other property, including another virtual currency such as exchanging Bitcoin for Ether.” The implication is that the IRS does not recognize the “like kind” exemption for cryptocurrencies.

Generally, the letters hint at positive changes in the IRS’ approach to the taxation of virtual currency transactions, albeit changes that should come in the form of formal guidance rather than ominous letters alleging noncompliance.

(For a more in-depth look at what the open questions are as well as suggestions of common-sense clarifying guidance the IRS could provide, please see our report “A Duty to Answer.”)

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Coin Center submitted comments to Her Majesty’s Treasury defending UK citizens’ right to develop and publish open-source software.

As outlined in its consultation paper, “Transposition of the Fifth Money Laundering Directive”, HM Treasury is currently considering broadening the scope of the UK’s anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulations to impose data collection and reporting requirements on not only cryptocurrency developers, but all open-source software developers and others who facilitate the peer-to-peer exchange of cryptoassets.

In our comment letter, we urge HM Treasury to refrain from such an over-broadening of its AML/CFT regulations. We argue that such an expansion would violate UK citizens’ free speech and privacy rights, as codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Those arguments, which are more fully laid out in the comment, are briefly summarized below.

Regarding privacy rights, both the ICCPR and the ECHR prohibit intrusions upon the privacy of persons unless those intrusions are made in accordance with law that is sufficiently clear in its terms to give citizens an adequate indication as to the circumstances in which and the conditions on which public authorities are empowered to resort to this secret and potentially dangerous interference with the right to respect for private life and correspondence. The imposition of financial surveillance upon every user of cryptocurrency, regardless of their particular circumstances, would fail to meet this standard and would, therefore, not be in keeping with the ICCPR and the ECHR.

Regarding speech rights, any law or regulation attempting to ban, require licensing for, or compel the altered publication (e.g. backdoors) of open-source cryptocurrency software would be unconstitutional under First Amendment-like protections for speech afforded to UK citizens by the ICCPR and ECHR.

These arguments, and their underlying principles—the right to free speech and to privacy—hew closely to our recent report on how the First and Fourth Amendments to the US Constitution protect open-source software developers and users here in the United States.

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The Human Rights Foundation has published a guide for activists and journalists to use Bitcoin privately.

In the second installment of their multi-part series meant to help those who may need to transact privately in the course of their sensitive work, security expert Eric Wall details the “how” of using Bitcoin privately.

To fight political dissent, authoritarian governments can abuse their power over the administrators of centralized payments networks. Bitcoin can be a lifeline in those situations. But using Bitcoin privately is no easy task. This guide aims to help, as Eric explains:

If you’re an activist or a journalist concerned with the dangers of having your bitcoin activity unmasked by a corporation or an authoritarian government, choosing the right wallet application could potentially mean the difference between life and death. While the previous article in this series aimed to answer the question “What traces do we leave when we’re using the Bitcoin blockchain?” to equip readers with a protocol-level understanding of Bitcoin’s privacy characteristics, this article aims to take things into the practical domain and familiarize the user with the applications we use to interact with the protocol to send and receive bitcoins; Bitcoin wallets.

The discussion being presented here is heavily focused on achieving privacy in the face of a spying corporation or government. For users who aren’t concerned by surveillance and simply wish to get started with bitcoin, this article is likely to be overkill. It is the purpose of this investigation to set fairly ambitious privacy goals for different use cases and explore the practical feasibility of achieving them using the tools currently available in the industry today.

Read the full guide here.

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Non-custodial cryptocurrency mixer developers are not subject to U.S. regulation.

A recent seizure of a custodial cryptocurrency mixer by EU authorities has prompted some people to ask us what this means for popular privacy software like CoinJoin or Wasabi Wallet, which are user-hosted software tools, not third-party services that take custody of user funds.

In the U.S. at least, recent guidance from FinCEN clearly specified that the developers of such software do not qualify as money services businesses as that term is defined in the relevant law and regulations. Here is the relevant portion of our analysis of FinCEN’s recent guidance:

[L]et's look at what the Guidance says about privacy-preserving cryptocurrencies like Zcash and Monero, as well as privacy-preserving services like tumblers. Section 4.5.1 states that mere developers of cryptocurrencies or protocols are not regulated as money transmitters. This section draws a critical distinction between those who provide services that can anonymize cryptocurrency payments and others who only provide software. In both cases the Guidance seems to be considering tumblers and mixers as well as dedicated privacy-preserving cryptocurrency networks. For example, one can imagine a mixer service provider (which receives coins from users, shuffles all the coins, and sends them back to its users) on the one hand, or one can imagine mixer software (which is merely a protocol that allows participants in a mix to move money to and from each other without any service provider in the middle e.g., TumbleBit protocol) on the other. Similarly, you could have privacy-preserving cryptocurrency software (e.g., Monero or Zcash) on the one hand, and on the other a centralized service (like Liberty Reserve or e-Gold) with no internal records kept of user transfers.

What’s significant about this distinction is that, according to the Guidance, service providers are money transmitters and software providers are not. Again, this is not a surprising interpretation and it is one for which Coin Center has long advocated, but it is excellent that FinCEN explains it all and offers clarity to mere developers of these highly significant privacy technologies. The Guidance states clearly:

An anonymizing software provider is not a money transmitter. FinCEN regulations exempt from the definition of money transmitter those persons providing ‘the delivery, communication, or network access services used by a money transmitter to support money transmission services.’ This is because suppliers of tools (communications, hardware, or software) that may be utilized in money transmission, like anonymizing software, are engaged in trade and not money transmission.

As we said then, we are glad to see FinCEN’s care in carving out the developers and users of privacy-protecting software that will become important tools for those who need it most in an increasingly surveilled society.

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Photos from the 2019 Coin Center Annual Dinner now available.

Thank you to everyone who came out for our most successful fundraising gala yet. It was a pleasure to host some of the best and brightest from the cryptocurrency world for a lighthearted night of fun. And once again, thank you to our generous sponsors and guests for helping to support Coin Center's vital policy advocacy mission.

Here are some pictures from the event.

Stay tuned for next year’s dinner. Hope to see you there!

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The IRS has told Congress that it will issue new cryptocurrency tax guidance soon.

In a new letter, the IRS Commissioner said he has “made it a priority” to issue additional guidance on crypto taxation.

Last week, Commissioner Charles Rettig responded to an April 11 letter from a bipartisan group of 21 Members of Congress, led by Rep. Tom Emmer, that asked the agency to issue needed guidance on the tax consequences and basic reporting requirements for taxpayers that use virtual currencies. In that response, Commissioner Rettig acknowledged that there are “areas where needed and helpful additional guidance can be provided,” and went on to say:

I share your belief that taxpayers deserve clarity on basic issues related to the taxation of virtual currency transactions and have made it a priority of the IRS to issue guidance. Specifically, your letter mentions (1) acceptable methods for calculation cost basis; (2) acceptable methods of cost basis assignment; and (3) tax treatment of forks. We have been considering these issues and intend to publish guidance addressing these and other issues soon.

We are glad to see that the IRS acknowledges the need for additional clarity on these basic tax questions, which we highlighted and suggested common-sense answers to in our recent report “A Duty to Answer.” We are also happy to see the continued leadership of Rep. Emmer and others in Congress on an issue which affects all U.S. cryptocurrency users.

A direct download of this letter is available here.

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Congress just sent a letter to the IRS about “urgent need for guidance” on crypto taxes.

Today, 21 members of Congress, led by Rep. Tom Emmer, sent a letter asking the agency to issue needed guidance on the tax consequences and basic reporting requirements for taxpayers that use virtual currencies. Congress has now sent four separate letters to the IRS about this issue.

In a statement, Rep. Emmer’s office said:

While initial guidance was provided, ambiguity around basic questions of how taxpayers should calculate and track the basis of their virtual currency holdings is unacceptable. According to a recent report from Coin Center, the 2014 guidance by the IRS failed to address fundamental tax questions, and repeated requests to the IRS for additional clarity have been made by a variety of entities. It also indicates that rather than providing clarity, the IRS has instead increased enforcement activities against taxpayers who “misreport” their cryptocurrency transactions.

Coin Center worked with Rep. Emmer to produce the bipartisan letter, which reflects several of the questions and concerns outlined in our recent report about cryptocurrency taxation, A Duty to Answer. The letter notes that the single piece of crypto tax guidance the IRS has released—the six-page “IRS Virtual Currency Guidance” from early 2014—fails to answer basic questions about crypto taxes, and that taxpayers deserve clarity from the agency. In other words, as the IRS Taxpayer Advocate put it a decade ago, “the IRS has a duty to answer all of the basic questions about transactions undertaken regularly by significant numbers of taxpayers, such as those involving virtual items.” In addition to describing these questions, our report provides common-sense recommendations on how the IRS should answer them.

In signing the letter, Rep. Emmer was joined by the other co-chairs of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus—Reps. Bill Foster, David Schweikert, and Darren Soto—as well as Reps. Patrick McHenry, James P. McGovern, French Hill, Terri Sewell, Warren Davidson, Stephen F. Lynch, Ted Budd, Eric Swalwell, Trey Hollingsworth, Ed Perlmutter, Greg Gianforte, Josh Gottheimer, Mark Meadows, Lance Gooden, Matt Gaetz, Ted S. Yoho, and Bryan Steil.

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Based in Washington, D.C., Coin Center is the leading non-profit research and advocacy center focused on the public policy issues facing cryptocurrency and decentralized computing technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Our mission is to build a better understanding of these technologies and to promote a regulatory climate that preserves the freedom to innovate using permissionless blockchain technologies.