Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Legal Policies to Unlock the Potential of Digital Tokens


Yan Liu
Deputy General Counsel at the International Monetary Fund
Jose Garrido
Senior Counsel in the International Monetary Fund’s Legal Department


Time to read

3 Minutes

Digital tokens have emerged as a powerful force in the new digital economy, offering almost boundless opportunities for innovation and economic growth. Adopting a comprehensive legal approach that fosters innovation while ensuring the protection of all parties is critical to unlocking the full potential of digital tokens and paving the way for the transformation of a broad range of economic activities.

In today's rapidly evolving digital landscape, the emergence of digital tokens represents a ground-breaking innovation with far-reaching implications. Leveraging advancements in cryptography and Decentralized Ledger Technology (DLT), digital tokens are units that cannot be forged, with increased traceability and cost-effective transferability. With their potential applications extending to commerce, finance, and various other economic sectors, digital tokens have the power to reshape traditional commercial and financial practices.

Connecting Digital Tokens with Traditional Commercial Instruments

In an innovative paper titled ‘Digital tokens: A Legal Perspective,’ the interconnection between digital tokens and conventional commercial instruments is explored. By identifying fundamental principles that originated in commercial practice with the incorporation of rights to negotiable instruments, the paper analyses how tokens can functionally replace existing instruments in commerce and finance. Moreover, tokens' inherent flexibility allows them to surpass the limitations of traditional instruments, such as the need to comply with formal requirements or the use for prescribed purposes. This enables the deployment of digital tokens across a wide array of economic activities.

The Potential of Digital Tokens and Legal Challenges

The potential of digital tokens to replace commercial instruments and perform additional economic functions is immense. However, this revolutionary transformation raises significant legal challenges. For tokens to achieve their full potential, a set of fundamental legal rules must integrate them within existing legal frameworks, ensuring confidence in their operation and enabling them to fulfil their functions effectively. The analysis in the IMF Working Paper focuses on a critical classification of tokens: tokens that are not connected with any right (ie, native tokens such as Bitcoin or Ether); tokens that are connected to online assets and services; and, finally, tokens that are connected to off-line assets or services.


Figure 1: Token Classification by Levels


The last category of tokens holds great promise, but also raises the most difficult legal questions. It entails, eg, establishing an enforceable link between tokens and offline reality, clarifying transfer rules, addressing issues of unlawful transfer, and providing remedies to protect the rights of legitimate token holders while safeguarding the rights of good faith acquirers.

Adapting Consumer Protection Laws

Given the flexibility of digital tokens, financial regulation cannot cover all their possible uses. Consumer protection laws should be adjusted to cover digital token sales, ensuring transparency, adequate disclosure, and appropriate redress opportunities. However, this adaptation must consider the unique challenges posed by digital transactions, respecting the dynamic nature of the digital world.

Balancing Innovation with Law and Regulation

A comprehensive legal approach is essential for the smooth functioning of digital tokens in commerce and finance. While legal certainty and protection of stakeholders’ interests are crucial, policymakers should remain cautious to avoid stifling innovation. Distinguishing tokens that function as securities from those serving other purposes is vital in preventing overregulation that may hinder economic progress. Tokenization of financial instruments must result in the application of an equivalent legal and regulatory regime to the existing one for traditional securities or dematerialized securities. As technology evolves, so must the legal responses. Solid legal foundations will minimize risks, but ongoing monitoring of developments in the digital economy and the evolution of legal techniques are crucial to providing appropriate safeguards for the use of digital tokens.

Legal Foundations for the New Digital Economy

Tokens can lead to the renewal of commercial and financial law, offering flexible opportunities for digitalizing economic transactions. Consequently, legal policies for tokens should focus on the substance of their functions rather than a formalistic analysis. As tokens continue to evolve, legal and regulatory regimes must adapt to encompass new aspects of technological developments and address the challenges of multilateral and decentralized activities. This has been highlighted in the IMF New Economy Forum: Tokenization: Mapping the Present and Charting the Path Ahead during the IMF 2023 Annual Meetings.

A Promising Future for Digital Tokens

With appropriate legal frameworks, digital tokens have the potential to revolutionize wide areas of finance and commerce. Together with Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, digital tokens can facilitate profound transformations in economic activities, presenting opportunities for growth in most countries and industries. To unlock their full potential, technological advancements must be supported by legal adjustments, robust institutional frameworks, and effective controls and protections.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF, its Executive Board, or IMF management.

Yan Liu is Deputy General Counsel at the International Monetary Fund.

Jose M. Garrido is Senior Counsel at the International Monetary Fund.



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