A carefully coordinated marketing campaign takes great pains to distance the new token from Yuga Labs, but the firm that created the Bored Ape NFTs appears to be deeply involved.
Earlier this week, it was announced members of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT collection would be getting their very own cryptocurrency, ApeCoin.
The passive voice there is intentional. ApeCoin is explicitly linked to these famously pricey non-fungible tokens and is very much involved with Yuga Labs, the company stewarding the intellectual property behind the Bored Apes. But a carefully coordinated marketing campaign has taken great pains to dissociate ApeCoin from anyone conventional corporation.
Instead, the public relations messaging insists ApeCoin is a product of ApeCoin DAO, a brand new organizational unit governed entirely by token holders. Holding APE makes you a member of the DAO (that’s short for decentralized autonomous organization, a kind of online collective centred around crypto); you don’t even need to own a Bored Ape NFT to join.
ApeCoin’s official website bills the token as “a decentralized protocol layer for community-led initiatives that drive culture forward into the metaverse.”
Let’s decode some of that gibberish, shall we?
What is ApeCoin?
ApeCoin is an ERC-20 token, a particular flavour of build-it-yourself cryptocurrency on the Ethereum blockchain. Most of the Ethereum-based social tokens that have taken off over the past year (think FWB, for the social club Friends with Benefits, and WRITE, for the Web 3 crowdfunding platform Mirror) are built using this framework.
Unlike NFTs, they’re meant to be “fungible” – as with bitcoin (BTC), anyone ApeCoin should be worth exactly as much as any other ApeCoin, and you can buy and sell them freely on what is known as a decentralized exchange, a kind of digital trading post for cryptocurrencies.
Almost every major centralized crypto exchange listed the token immediately after launch. This was an accomplishment in and of itself, given the notoriously finicky nature of major players like Coinbase (COIN). After just one day of trading, ApeCoin had a market capitalization of almost $2 billion; one APE is currently worth about $14 and the total supply of tokens is capped at one billion (not all of which is currently in circulation).
Who is behind ApeCoin?
According to the ApeCoin website and accompanying press materials, ApeCoin is being launched by ApeCoin DAO, a new governing body in which all APE holders are members. It’s meant to field proposals from the community, which token holders can then vote on.
Other NFT projects have attempted similar voting structures. Purchasing an NFT from a collection called “Nouns” makes you a member of Nouns DAO, an online investment collective that has amassed a treasury of $62 million. On a dedicated page for proposals, Nouns owners can decide as a group what they’d like to do with that money. (A typical proposal: “What if we made an NFT comic book?”)
There’s also a separate organization called the Ape Foundation, which will handle day-to-day DAO administration, proposal management and “other tasks that ensure the DAO community’s ideas have the support they need to become a reality.” It’s the legal backing for ApeCoin DAO.
An Ape Foundation subcommittee will also serve as ApeCoin DAO’s “board,” which will oversee certain proposals. The initial board consists of five high-profile crypto investors: Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian; Amy Wu, who leads the crypto exchange FTX’s venture arm; Maaria Bajwa, of Sound Ventures; Animoca Brands’ Yat Siu; and Dean Steinbeck of Horizon Labs. Each board member gets a six-month term, and the ApeCoin website promises DAO members will be able to vote on future members.
Floating somewhere in the middle of all this is a Cayman Islands-based consulting company called Cartan Group, which is being paid $150,000 per month for a six-month contract; all five of the DAO’s active AIPs, or “Ape Improvement Proposals,” were posted by Brian Tang, the company’s co-founder.
So, in addition to the ApeCoin protocol (the code behind ApeCoin tokens), there’s the ApeCoin DAO, the Ape Foundation and the ApeCoin DAO board.
But ApeCoin wasn’t developed by the community of Bored Ape investors. There’s a black hole at the center of this ape galaxy. Who actually put this thing together?
The main company behind the Bored Ape Yacht Club is Yuga Labs, a traditional corporate entity registered in Delaware. It’s reportedly in talks with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz about funding that would value it at $5 billion, and it has recently made moves to become, effectively, the first major NFT monopoly.
Yuga Labs is also responsible for all the major projects and acquisitions surrounding the Bored Ape Yacht Club. If you want to do anything with Bored Ape IP, you’ll have to go through Yuga Labs.
In a statement, Yuga Labs CEO Nicole Muniz said that “Yuga Labs will continue to be builders of products and experiences that bring new ideas and energy to the community.” Yuga Labs has gifted a special one-of-one NFT to the ApeCoin DAO treasury, and plans to “adopt ApeCoin as the primary token for all new products and services,” which ties its value to the health of the Bored Ape collection as a whole.
Even still, Yuga Labs has insisted it’s not responsible for ApeCoin.
A press release, courtesy of a company called Strange Brew Strategies, warns journalists that “it’s probably tempting to write that ApeCoin is from the Bored Ape Yacht Club to simplify things, but it’s not accurate.”
Distribution and free money
The distribution model for ApeCoin further complicates that question of agency.
Sixty-two per cent of the total ApeCoins are being set aside for token holders and the DAO treasury. For the first 90 days of ApeCoin’s existence, anyone who holds some combination of NFTs from the Bored Ape Yacht Club and its two spin-off collections, the Mutant Ape Yacht Club and the Bored Ape Kennel Club, can claim a certain amount of APE from ApeCoin’s website.
Because APE has a discrete value and is already trading on major exchanges, claiming these coins is a little like claiming free money. For each Bored Ape you own, you’re entitled to 10,094 APE. That’s around $150,000 at today’s prices – about half of what you’d need to buy yourself another Bored Ape.
So far, around 110 million APE tokens have been claimed by NFT holders (here’s a convenient dashboard for tracking APE tokenomics, courtesy of a Dune Analytics wizard called Hildobby).
The other 38% of ApeCoin is set aside for “initial contributors,” and also the Jane Goodall Legacy Foundation, which supports conservation efforts for (real-life) jungle primates.
The “free money” token claim concept for NFTs isn’t a new one. Back in September, a developer launched a cryptocurrency called “Adventure Gold” (AGLD) as a companion to an ascendant NFT collection called Loot. Anyone with a Loot NFT was automatically entitled to a certain amount of AGLD, and claiming those tokens meant coming into tens of thousands of dollars without any extra effort. In this sense, an NFT can function as a license to print money.
Again, Yuga Labs claims zero responsibility for ApeCoin – it’s just taking a significant chunk of the profits.
Is this legal?
It hinges on the idea that ApeCoin DAO is entirely independent of Yuga Labs. If Yuga Labs issued a token explicitly as a reward for Bored Ape holders, you could more easily make the argument that a Bored Ape is a kind of investment, and therefore subject to securities regulations. In the way that certain stocks pay dividends, part of the value of investment-style NFTs would be tied to the perks they could get you down the line.
With ApeCoin ostensibly coming just from ApeCoin DAO and not from Yuga Labs, there’s a veneer of plausible deniability – an independent entity allocating tokens to a company and its founders, rather than that company and its founders pumping their own investments.
Of course, traditional companies do this all the time, via initial public offerings of stock. The difference is the ApeCoin offering is essentially unregulated because, in the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission still doesn’t oversee NFTs.
Yuga Labs is getting 150 million APE, 10 million of which (“or equal value”) will go to the Jane Goodall Legacy Foundation. Next, 140 million APE goes to “the companies and people that helped make this project a reality” – an as-yet-unnamed group that most likely includes members of the Yuga Labs team. And 80 million APE goes to the founders of Yuga Labs. All these coins are “locked” for the first 12 months, so holders can’t just cash out and tank the price.
According to Rohan Grey, a law professor at Willamette University and crypto regulation observer, the distinction between ApeCoin DAO and Yuga Labs probably also has to do with something called the Hinman Test. It’s named for former SEC official William Hinman, who now works at Andreessen Horowitz; Hinman’s idea was that if a governing body is “sufficiently decentralized,” it’s free to issue a token without having to register it as a security. ApeCoin DAO is (at least nominally) decentralized; Yuga Labs is not.
“It’s the next iteration of the crypto world’s attempts to get around securities regulation,” he said. “First of all it was coins, and then in 2017 with the [SEC’s] ICO report they couldn’t do that, so they switched to stablecoins, and then there was a clamp-down on that, so they switched to NFTs.”
In Grey’s opinion, ApeCoin amounts to an attempt by the crypto industry “to almost relitigate 2017 – they were kicked out of the bar wearing a fake moustache, now they’ve come back with a fake nose in a week.”
OK, but what can I do with ApeCoin?
Right now, ApeCoin mostly exists for speculation and “governance” for the DAO. But Yuga Labs has grand ambitions for the token.
A mobile game called Benji Bananas, developed by Animoca Brands (whose CEO, Yat Siu, is on the board of the Ape Foundation), is adopting ApeCoin as a kind of in-game currency. For 25 ApeCoins, you can buy a Benji Bananas Membership Pass, which lets you earn “special tokens” in-game. Those tokens can then be swapped for ApeCoins.
Presumably, this is only the beginning of a whole ecosystem powered by ApeCoin: Yuga Labs plans to use APE as its de facto currency for all new projects. That’s part of the legal element, too – the more you can do with the token, beyond speculation, the better your shot at evading the SEC.
If the price holds, and traders outside the Bored Ape Yacht Club ecosystem start taking positions in APE, you can expect the use cases too, uh, evolve.