Launch of CryptoSecurities.eu research project

Distributed Ledger Law (DLL) today announces the launch of its legal research project “CryptoSecurities.eu.” DLL’s founder took up a position as PhD researcher at KU Leuven, Europe’s most innovative university according to Reuters, to engage in a multi-annual research project on the legal aspects of cryptosecurities.

Several jurisdictions have adopted or are currently adopting legislation to permit the issuance of cryptosecurities by private companies. However, the current securities law framework may not be equipped to provide an adequate answer to what cryptosecurities are and how they can be transferred in a valid and effective way. The main reason for this is that the current securities markets are centralised, intermediated, and built on the assumption of imperfect traceability of securities. By contrast, distributed ledger technology is designed to facilitate decentralisation, disintermediation and perfect traceability. The CryptoSecurities.eu research project seeks to map and mitigate the legal risks that emerge from the clash of these paradigms.

This objective will be pursued by starting from three seemingly simple questions:

  1. To what extent do cryptosecurities differ from traditional securities?
  2. What legal gaps occur when the current legal framework governing the nature and transfer of traditional securities is applied to cryptosecurities?
  3. How can these gaps be bridged?

The project’s full working title is “The Nature and Transfer of Cryptosecurities: Mapping and Mitigating Legal Risk.” Progress updates will be shared here on Distributed Ledger Law.

Classifying Cryptosecurities

Introduction

Distributed Ledger Law recently published an article in the Belgian legal journal Tijdschrift voor Rechtspersoon en Vennootschap – Revue pratique des sociétés (TRV-RPS).[1] The article discussed, among others, some of the legislative initiatives that were taken so far by jurisdictions in the US and Europe to enable the issuance of “cryptosecurities”: securities (such as shares or bonds) that are held, transferred and/or issued by means of distributed ledger technology.

One of the article’s takeaways is a proposed classification of cryptosecurities.

Classification matrix

Cryptosecurities exist in many variations, depending on the extent to which distributed ledger technology (DLT) is used, and the extent to which the cryptosecurities receive legal recognition.[2] A distinction can be made between (i) the recording (i.e., keeping the securities ledger up to date), (ii) the transfer and (iii) the issuance of cryptosecurities. In this matrix, we propose a descriptive classification of cryptosecurities based on these three elements.

Use of DLT and legal recognition are essential parameters of a cryptosecurity. It can therefore be useful to compare initiatives relating to cryptosecurities with one another on the basis of these parameters. This helps in quickly getting to the essence of an initiative, and facilitates the communication around the initiative. The classification matrix is intended to provide a framework for this.

Examples

Let’s apply the proposed classification to some real-world examples.

1. Example of a cryptosecurity of category A1: Borsa Italiana has launched an initiative to allow non-listed SME’s to keep track of their stock ledger by using a DLT platform.[3] The platform will only be used to keep track of the cap table, not to transfer shares. Hence, there is only a weak use of DLT (i.e., category A). The project will stay within the boundaries of the existing legal framework; there is no explicit legal recognition of the DLT principles used (i.e., category 1).

2. Example of a cryptosecurity of category B1: In December 2016, Overstock.com Inc., a North-American online retailer listed on Nasdaq, completed the first-ever issuance of cryptoshares.[4] The cryptoshares were issued in the form of book entry shares (for which no share certificates were issued) registered in the stock ledger of the issuer in the name of the shareholders.[5] The shares are exclusively traded on a multilateral trade facility that is operated by a subsidiary of Overstock. com Inc. Transactions in the cryptoshares are settled almost immediately (t+0). The platform comes with some quite radical transfer restrictions built in: the cryptoshares cannot be sold short nor pledged.

In summary, a transaction would unfold as follows.[6] First, the transaction is recorded in the internal ledger of the multilateral trade facility. The updated ledger is then automatically published on the internet (on an anonymised basis). Finally, a cryptographic hash of the updated ledger is registered on the Bitcoin blockchain. This cryptographic hash serves as a digital fingerprint that can be used to verify the accuracy of the internal ledger.

Taking this structure into account, the Overstock cryptoshares can be classified as category B1: there is a moderate use of DLT (category B), but no explicit legal recognition (category 1).

Category C3 cryptosecurities

Several jurisdictions (such as Delaware, France and Wyoming) have been industriously enacting legislation to enable the issuance of cryptosecurities by companies that are governed by their respective laws. If one follows the proposed classification matrix, this makes them the first “category 3 jurisdictions”. Undoubtedly, the first category C3 cryptosecurities will soon be issued.


Footnotes:

[1] M. Van de Looverbosch, “Crypto-effecten: tussen droom en daad”, TRV-RPS, 2018(3), pp. 193-207.

[2] For a classification of cryptosecurities according to legal recognition, see Direction Générale du Trésor (France), “Consultation publique sur le projet de réformes législative et réglementaire”, 24 March 2017, pp. 4-5, https://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/Ressources/File/434688. For a discussion of degrees of integration of DLT with the current intermediated structure of listed securities, see P. Paech, “Securities, Intermediation and the Blockchain: An Inevitable Choice between Liquidity and Legal Certainty”, LSE Law, Society and Economy Working Paper 20/2015, 26-28. For a reflection on degrees of technological support, see K. Werbach, “Trust, But Verify: Why the Blockchain Needs the Law”, pp. 43-48, https://ssrn.com/abstract=2844409.

[3] See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lse-blockchain/london-stock-exchange-group-tests-blockchain-for-private-company-shares-idUSKBN1A40ME.

[4] Zie http://investors.overstock.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=131091&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=2230245 (bezocht 30 december 2017).

[5] This is remarkable, because in the US almost all shares of listed companies are registered in the stock ledger of the issuer in the name of Cede & Co., a nominee of Depository Trust Company.

[6] See the prospectus dated 9 December 2015, pp. 34-36, in particular p. 36, and the prospectus supplement dated 14 November 2016, pp. S-52 – S-57, both available via the EDGAR database of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, at https://www.sec.gov/edgar.

Trusted timestamping of schedules to a contract

In many European jurisdictions, it is common for landlords and tenants to inspect the property prior to the start of the tenancy in order to document the condition of the leased premises. This way, arguments at the end of the tenancy over whether or not any damage to the property was caused by the tenant can be avoided. Such pre-tenancy inspection is often supported by photographs of the leased premises, certainly so if the report of the pre-tenancy inspection is drawn up by a real estate expert. A paper copy of the report would then be attached to the tenancy agreement as a schedule.

In such cases, i.e., where digital documents are attached to a contract as a schedule, it would make sense to attach them to the contract in digital form, rather than in paper form. This way, loss of quality can be avoided, and the schedule will be easier to verify in case a dispute would arise. If, for instance, there would be a crack in one of the walls of the leased premises, digital photographs (which can be enlarged) will offer greater verifiability than paper copies of the photographs in determining whether or not such crack was there prior to the start of the tenancy.

If the photographs are attached to the contract in digital form, on a USB stick for instance, it is of course essential that they cannot be tampered with (e.g., ‘photoshopped’). Although such tampering would cause the landlord’s version and the tenant’s version of the photographs to differ from one another, it cannot reliably be determined which party has engaged in the tampering.

A convenient and secure solution to this problem would be to time-stamp the photographs using a blockchain. Many online service-providers offer trusted time-stamping services, either for a subscription fee, a one-time fee, or free of charge. One free variant with a user-friendly interface is OriginStamp. This website works as follows. First, OriginStamp hashes your file using the cryptographic hash function SHA256. The hash is immediately published on twitter. Next, it collects the hashes of all files received from all users over the course of a day and hashes these hashes together using SHA256 to form one single hash. The latter hash is then used to generate a Bitcoin address. Finally, once a day, the smallest possible amount of Bitcoin is sent to the Bitcoin address so generated. This way of working enables secure and reliable verification that an exact version of a particular file was submitted on a particular time and date. Any amendments to the file, however small, will be immediately detected, as the amended file will generate a hash that is different from the hash of the original document.

Turning back to our tenancy hypothesis, the landlord and the tenant could compress the photographs taken during the pre-tenancy inspection into a .zip-file and submit the .zip-file to OriginStamp.  The resulting hash could then be included in the execution version of the tenancy agreement. After execution of the contract, each of the parties receives a copy of the agreement, which includes the hash of the photographs taken, and a USB stick containing the photographs. If a dispute would arise afterwards, and one of the photographs serves to support a claim, it can be easily demonstrated that such photograph is the original and unaltered photograph.