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This Article presents the legal literature’s first detailed analysis of the inner workings of Initial Coin Offerings. We characterize the ICO as an example of financial innovation, placing it in kinship with venture capital contracting, asset securitization, and (obviously) the IPO. We also take the form seriously as an example of technological innovation, where promoters are beginning to effectuate their promises to investors through computer code, rather than traditional contract. To understand the dynamics of this shift, we first collect contracts, “white papers,” and other contract-like documents for the fifty top-grossing ICOs of 2017. We then analyze how such projects’ software code reflected (or failed to reflect) their contractual promises. Our inquiry reveals that many ICOs failed even to promise that they would protect investors against insider self-dealing. Fewer still manifested such contracts in code. Surprisingly, in a community known for espousing a technolibertarian belief in the power of “trustless trust” built with carefully designed code, a significant fraction of issuers retained centralized control through previously undisclosed code permitting modification of the entities’ governing structures. These findings offer valuable lessons to legal scholars, economists, and policymakers about the roles played by gatekeepers; about the value of regulation; and the possibilities for socially valuable private ordering in a relatively anonymous, decentralized environment.


ICO, blockchain, fintech, smart contract, IPO, bitcoin, initial coin offering, venture capital

Publication Title

Columbia Law Review

Publication Citation

119 Colum. L. Rev. 591 (2019)