When Wells notice? Yuga Labs, the SEC is coming for you

I’ve been saying for months now that ApeCoin is an unregistered penny stock offering, and Yuga Labs should expect the SEC to come knocking.

Well, guess what? They are knocking. The SEC is probing Yuga Labs to see if Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs — as well as ApeCoin — are unregistered securities offerings. On Oct. 10, Bloomberg wrote: [Bloomberg]

“The SEC is examining whether certain nonfungible tokens from the Miami-based company are more akin to stocks and should follow the same disclosure rules, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the probe is private. Wall Street’s main regulator is also examining the distribution of ApeCoin, which was given to holders of Bored Ape Yacht Club and related NFTs.”

Yuga Labs is the parent company of Bored Ape Yacht Club, a collection of NFTs with spin-off NFT projects, such as Mutant Ape Yacht Club and Bored Ape Kennel Club. Yuga is also behind the yet-to-launch MMO game Otherside — which it is building in partnership with Animoca Brands — and the issuance of Otherdeeds, NFTs representing land parcels in the game. 

Bored Ape Yacht Club launched ApeCoin, an ERC20 token, on March 17. The very same day, ApeCoin listed on Coinbase — a first for a coin, but then two Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) people sit on the Coinbase board, and a16z is a major Yuga Labs backer. 

Are Bored Apes securities?

A token is deemed a security if it passes the Howey test, which says that an investment contract — a security — exists “when there is the investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the efforts of others.” [SEC]

Are NFTs securities? Possibly? Maybe? They are non-fungible, so the argument is not so clear. Each NFT is unique, and in the case of Bored Apes Yacht Club, they represent art. Regulators have yet to issue any strong warnings against NFTs. 

However, some NFTs do have characteristics of securities. In April, two state regulators ordered Sand Vegas Casino Club to stop selling NFTs, alleging the Cryprus company was illegally offering unregistered securities. Sand Vegas had promised holders of its Gambling Apes NFTs profits from the proceeds of the casinos, so you can see why they landed into trouble. [Texas order; Alabama order; Coindesk

Otherdeed land sale

Likewise, Yuga Labs’ Otherdeed NFTs have characteristics of securities. Otherdeeds represent 200,000 plots of virtual land in the upcoming Otherside metaverse.  

Yuga Labs sold 55,000 Otherdeeds on April 30, 2022, in what it called the “biggest mint in NFT history.” Yuga netted over $300 million worth of ApeCoin in the sale. ApeCoin was the only currency accepted. [Twitter

Specific wording in the terms makes it sound like Yuga suspected Otherdeeds might attract the attention of regulators. You had to essentially agree that you were buying these for fun, not for profit: [Otherdeed purchase agreement, archive

Artistic Purposes Only. Purchaser represents and warrants that Purchaser (A) is purchasing the Otherdeed for personal enjoyment purposes, and (B) is not purchasing any Otherdeed with the intent or expectation of profits from any appreciation in value or otherwise from the Otherdeed or any Access Rights that may from time to time be granted by Animoca or third parties.”

Do Otherdeeds pass the Howey test? Let’s see. 

  • Was there an investment of money? Yes. Buyers paid 305 ApeCoin to purchase an Otherdeed on April 30. 
  • Was there a common enterprise? Yes. The Otherside game. Yuga sold virtual plots of land to investors in exchange for the promise of owning land in a functioning metaverse tomorrow.
  • Was there an expectation of profit? Yes. Despite the language in the terms, Otherdeed owners immediately began flipping their Otherdeeds for more money. Case in point: Otherdeed #59906 sold for 625 ETH ($1.5 million) just 10 days later. Some Otherdeeds even came with one or more creatures on them called Kodas, also represented by NFTs. Otherdeeds with Kodas fetch a significantly higher price on third-party marketplaces. [The Block; OpenSea]
  • Was the profit to be derived from the efforts of others? Yes. If the investor has a significant hand in the success of an investment, it’s most likely not an investment. Otherdeeds are meant to involve the participants in the game. According to Otherside’s website, “Rather than a static representation of a piece of land, your Otherdeed is designed to evolve along with what you choose to do in the game.” But the game does not exist yet. So, as of now, everything is based on the efforts of Yuga and Animoca and their ongoing promotion of the game. [Website]

ApeCoin, a clear case

While Otherdeeds could be a securities offering, there is an even stronger case to be made that ApeCoin is a security.  

ApeCoin is fungible, and it carries voting rights. Critically, its value is dependent on the work of Yuga Labs. 

SEC Chair Gary Gensler has given clear warning about ERC20 tokens. He has already stated, more than once, that most cryptocurrencies are securities. [CNBC; SEC]  

“I think, and my predecessors thought this as well, that most of these tokens are in fact that the public is investing, anticipating and hoping for profit, based on somebody else’s efforts.”

Yuga Labs never sold ApeCoin directly for cash. However, they did sell Bored Ape and Mutant Ape NFTs for money. If you were a holder of one of these NFTs, you got an allotment of ApeCoin worth up to $80,000. Many chose to HODL, hoping the price would go up. It did, for a while. [Decrypt]

When Yuga Labs held its massive Otherdeed land sale, ApeCoin surged to $27.50. It’s now trading for just under $5.

But we’re decentralized!

Yuga Labs went to great lengths to hide the fact that they were behind ApeCoin, saying it was issued by the ApeCoin DAO made up of members who were not Yuga Labs employees. APE Foundation was also formed to administer the decisions of the ApeCoin DAO. 

If you hold ApeCoin, you get voting rights — akin to voting shares in a company. You can vote on proposals put forth by the ApeCoin DAO. In June, ApeCoin holders voted to keep the token on the Ethereum blockchain. [Bloomberg]

Around the time that ApeCoin launched, Yuga Labs received a $450 million round led by a16z. Investors in the round also received a distribution of ApeCoin. 

Here’s how 1 trillion ApeCoin were initially distributed:

  • 1% to charity
  • 8% to Yuga Labs founders 
  • 14% to launch partners, including a16z and Animoca 
  • 15% to Yuga Labs
  • 15% to Bored Ape/Mutant Ape owners
  • 47% to ApeCoin DAO

In mid-September, the ApeCoin DAO released 26 million ApeCoins, so investors could freely dump their bags on retailers via Coinbase. [Decrypt]

David Gerard explains exactly how VCs make millions of dollars via securities fraud: [David Gerard]

“The entire venture capital push for Web3 is so that Andreesen Horowitz (a16z) and friends can dump ill-regulated tokens on retail as fast as possible. This gives the VCs very fast liquidity events — the bit where they make money — and much faster than they get from investing in actual companies.”

ApeCoin will also be the official token of the Otherside game, supposedly to prove that ApeCoin is a decentralized utility token and not an altcoin that investors are hoping to cash out on. 

If you are wondering how all of this decentralized nonsense comes into play — Bill Hinman, when he was working for the SEC as the director of the Division of Corporation Finance, declared that ETH was not a security because it was “sufficiently decentralized.” [SEC

Yuga Labs is trying to model itself after Ethereum, so it can effectively say to the SEC, “You can’t sue us, bro!”

They’ve got someone good coaching them. Hinman, who has since retired from the SEC, now works for a16z. [a16z

Securities laws exist to prevent fraud. Companies that offer securities are subject to strict disclosure rules for this reason — to protect investors. Yuga Labs main founders Greg Solano and Wylie Aronow thought it would be great to remain CryptoGarga and GordonGoner until they were “doxxed.” [Buzzfeed

They were upset when Buzzfeed wrote that story, and they shamelessly brought a lot of ire from the crypto community onto the author of the piece, when their true identities were something they should have openly and responsibly disclosed from day one. 

Solano and Wylie are about to get an education in securities laws, along with the sobering realization they were never witty or clever or even lucky, just pawns in a game that VCs have been playing for years.

With celebs shilling their Bored Ape NFTs on national TV, Bored Apes Yacht Club has gotten a ridiculous amount of press. The SEC will want to make an example of Yuga Labs. I suspect, at some point, Solano and Wylie can look forward to a Wells notice from the SEC, giving them a heads up that an enforcement action is coming down the pipes.

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Yuga Lab’s Otherside land sale turns into a giant gas war

Yuga Labs launched a land sale for its upcoming metaverse project Otherside Saturday night, which quickly morphed into a gas war — and broke Ethereum. 

As part of their psychedelic-fueled business plans, Yuga Labs offered 55,000 NFTs called “Otherdeeds” for 305 APE each ($5,800, at the time). Apecoin was the only crypto accepted for the minting.  

The sale, which started on April 30, at 9 p.m ET, immediately became a land grab for the rich. People paid between 1.3 ETH to 1.9 ETH ($3,500 to $5,500), on average, just to get their transactions to go through. Some even paid 5 ETH ($13,500) and higher — double the cost of the land itself.

The high fees lasted several hours, making Ethereum virtually unusable for any other projects. [Reddit]

By the time the sale was over, Yuga Labs netted 16.7 million APE ($310 million), helping to recentralize a coin they can then claim is decentralized. All of the APE acquired in the sale are locked up for one year. 

Gas fees

Ethereum — a “world computer” — ambles along at 15 transactions per second. You have to pay a fee, called “gas,” to Ethereum miners to process transactions. 

When transaction volumes are high, miners get to selectively process only transactions paying the highest gas fees. The higher the gas fee you are willing to pay, the better your chance of having a miner include your transaction in the next block on the blockchain.  

If you happen to pay too low a gas fee, your transaction will fail, and you lose your gas money. The Otherdeed mint saw lots of failed transactions. [Dune]

What happened?

Originally, Yuga Labs were going to do a Dutch auction. 

In a Dutch auction, also known as a descending price auction, you determine the price of something after you collect all of the bids. Bidders indicate how much they are willing to pay for an item and the number of items they want to purchase at that price. If there are insufficient bids to sell all of the items, you lower the price until you find a price that works for everyone. 

The phrase dates back to the 17th century when Dutch auctions were used to sell fresh flowers in Amsterdam.

However, Yuga Labs decided to scratch that plan at the last minute because — “Dutch auctions are bullshit.” [Otherside blog post]

Instead, they opted to sell the land to pre-approved KYC’d wallets for a flat price of 305 APE.

There were concerns from the beginning about a gas war erupting. Yuga Labs assured everyone that everything would be fine, because they were going to do the sale in waves, initially limiting the number of mints to two per wallet “to ensure as broad a distribution as possible and dramatically soften the potential for a massive gas war.”

The plan failed, and the mint consumed over $177 million in gas fees. Only those with enough ETH on hand got the land. So much for wide distribution. [Etherscan] 

Demand for NFTs was so high that even Etherscan crashed, said Yuga Labs. [Twitter]

Yuga Lab’s smart contract had no gas optimizations at all. They waited until the last minute, and then uploaded poorly written crap to the Ethereum blockchain.

Yuga Labs say they’re sorry for the whole mess, and they promise to do better next time. [Twitter]

They also said that they will refund any failed transaction fees. [Twitter]

Yuga Labs’ business acumen consists of finding a reliable pool of suckers who they squeeze regularly for more money. Their business acumen does not extend to any form of technical competence or even how to run an auction. But it does exactly the job it is supposed to do: it gets them their money. In that sense, the land mint was a success. 

In collectors’ hurry to mint the metaverse land NFTs, some inevitably fell victim to phishing sites. Crypto sleuth Zachxbt found scammer wallets that netted $6.2 million in stolen NFTs. [Twitter]

What’s next? 

Otherside, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game that Yuga Labs is working on with partner Animoca Brands, doesn’t even exist yet. At this point, they just have a website with a trailer with The Doors’ “Break on Through” playing in the background.  

Yuga Labs is now talking about developing their own blockchain to alleviate network congestion problems in the future. 

Ethereum doesn’t work for the job it’s intended to do, even though a16z, Yuga Lab’s backer, keeps talking up Web3 as the future of the internet. 

As a result, blockchain game developers often resort to creating their own blockchains. Dapper Labs eventually moved CryptoKitties over to a new blockchain called Flow, after the game caused Ethereum to slow to a crawl in 2017. 

Axie Infinity, another popular game, created a new blockchain called Ronin. However, they had to create a bridge so that Ethereum tokens, in the form of WETH, could be used on Ronin. The result was a $600 million hack. Bridges are a risky proposition. David Gerard calls them smart contract Pinatas. 

In addition to the 55,000 Otherdeeds it sold on Saturday, Yuga Labs plans to airdrop another 45,000 land parcel NFTs to Bored Ape and Mutant Ape holders, as well as Yuga Labs and other project developers. Another 100,000 parcels are expected to be awarded later to certain Otherdeed NFT holders, according to the Otherside website. [Otherside FAQ]

If you missed out on buying an Otherdeed NFT on Saturday, several are currently being flipped on OpenSea for a floor price of 6.5 ETH ($17,000).

APE, which was trading as high as $26 before the land sale, has tumbled to $17. 

(Update: In an earlier version of this story, I said Yuga would refund gas fees for Otherdeed purchases. They will only refund failed transaction fees.)

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