Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Future of Cryptocurrency Regulation: Lessons from SEC v Coinbase


Chun-Kit (Kitson) Ng
LLM in Banking and Financial Law at Boston University, School of Law


Time to read

4 Minutes

The Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) enforcement action against Coinbase, Inc. and Coinbase Global, Inc. has garnered significant attention due to its implications for the broader cryptocurrency industry. At its core, the case challenges whether Coinbase’s crypto-asset trading platform, staking program, and related services operate within the framework of federal securities laws. The ruling by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York provides critical insights into the legal definition of securities and sets the stage for ongoing debates over the regulation of crypto-assets (Sec. & Exch. Comm’n v Coinbase, Inc (2024) SDNY 23 CIV 4738, (2024) WL 1304037).

Overview of the Case

The SEC alleges that Coinbase, Inc and Coinbase Global, Inc (collectively, ‘Coinbase’) engaged in transactions involving crypto-asset securities without proper registration. Coinbase, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the United States, operates a platform where users can trade a wide array of crypto-assets. However, Coinbase is not registered with the SEC as a securities exchange, broker, or clearing agency. The central legal question is whether the crypto-assets and related transactions facilitated by Coinbase meet the definition of ‘securities’.


Legal Dispute: Are Crypto-Assets Securities?

The dispute centres on the classification of crypto-assets as securities. The SEC argues that at least some transactions on Coinbase's platform constitute ‘investment contracts’, a type of security defined by the Howey test from the landmark case SEC v WJ Howey Co (SEC v WJ Howey Co (1946) 328 US 293). This test involves three key elements:

  1. Investment of money
  2. In a common enterprise
  3. With profits derived solely from the efforts of others

Coinbase maintains that its operations do not meet these criteria, emphasizing that its role is primarily technical and administrative rather than managerial.

Key Cases Applying the Howey Test

In recent years, the SEC and private litigants have brought successful cases in the Second Circuit relating to the classification of crypto-assets as securities under the Howey test. These cases provide critical insights into how courts are applying the Howey test to various crypto-asset transactions. Notable cases include:

  • SEC v Telegram Group Inc: The SEC sought to prevent Telegram from distributing 2.9 billion ‘Grams’, a crypto asset, to 175 purchasers for $1.7 billion, arguing that this was an unregistered offering of securities. The court held that the initial offering of Grams to the purchasers was part of a broader scheme to distribute them into a secondary public market, indicating that the entire process constituted a securities transaction. (SEC v Telegram Grp Inc (2020) SDNY 19 CIV 9439, WL 61528).


  • SEC v Terraform Labs Pte Ltd: The SEC filed a suit against Terraform Labs and its founder for alleged fraud in the sale of cryptocurrencies. The court found sufficient evidence that the products in question were ‘investment contracts’ under the Howey test. The SEC’s case was supported by various investor materials and social media posts that suggested investors could expect profits from the efforts of Terraform’s team. The court also noted that horizontal commonality existed, demonstrating the pooling of investor assets to support the ecosystem, theoretically increasing the token value (Terraform Labs Pte Ltd v Citadel Sec, LLC (2023) SD Fla 1:23-CV-01346-JSR, WL 8679668).


  • SEC v Kik Interactive Inc: The SEC brought an enforcement action against Kik Interactive for the unregistered sale of crypto-assets. The court held that Kik's initial coin offering (ICO) constituted a securities offering under the Howey test, rejecting the notion that ongoing contractual obligations were required for investment contracts. (US Sec & Exch Comm'n v Kik Interactive Inc (2020) SDNY (2020) 492 F Supp 3d 169)


These key cases demonstrate a consistent pattern in applying the Howey test to crypto-asset transactions, indicating that courts are increasingly inclined to view these transactions as falling within the scope of securities laws.

The Court’s Ruling on Coinbase’s Motion for Judgment

The court’s ruling on Coinbase’s motion for judgment on the pleadings provides a detailed analysis of the SEC's claims. The court denied the motion in large part, stating that the SEC’s well-pleaded allegations plausibly support the claim that Coinbase operated as an unregistered intermediary of securities. The court found that the transactions challenged by the SEC align with the Howey test, suggesting that they could be subject to securities regulation.

In particular, the court highlighted Coinbase’s Staking Program, which allows customers to stake their crypto-assets to validate transactions on the blockchain and earn financial rewards. The court agreed with the SEC that this program likely involves the offer and sale of securities due to the common enterprise created by pooling assets and the reasonable expectation of profits derived from Coinbase’s efforts in managing the staking process.

However, the court dismissed the SEC’s claim that Coinbase acts as an unregistered broker through its Wallet application, noting that the allegations did not demonstrate significant brokerage-related activities, such as handling customer funds or providing trading instructions.

Legal Framework for Securities Regulation

The legal structure for securities regulation in the United States is rooted in the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. These acts were designed to protect investors and ensure fair and transparent securities markets. The court’s ruling indicates that the same principles used to regulate traditional securities may apply to crypto-asset transactions, particularly when they involve investment contracts as defined by the Howey test.

Conclusion and Implications

The ruling in SEC v Coinbase underscores the evolving legal landscape for cryptocurrency regulation. The court’s decision suggests that many crypto-asset transactions may fall within established securities frameworks, requiring compliance with SEC regulations. This has significant implications for Coinbase and other companies operating in the crypto space, as they may need to consider registration and other regulatory requirements.

The case also raises broader questions about the future of crypto regulation and the need for clearer guidelines from legislative bodies. As the case continues, the outcomes may shape the way crypto companies structure their operations and interact with regulatory authorities. The court’s analysis provides a critical reference point for understanding the intersection of cryptocurrency and securities laws, highlighting the challenges and uncertainties in this rapidly evolving field.

Chun-Kit (Kitson)Ng is an LLM in Banking and Financial Law at Boston University, School of Law.



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