The cryptocurrency industry secured an early victory in its court battle with U.S. regulators when a federal judge ruled on Thursday that the sale on public exchanges of a digital asset called XRP complied with securities laws.
For years, the Securities and Exchange Commission has argued that digital assets constitute securities, like stocks and bonds traded on Wall Street, and should be subject to the same strict regulations. Last month, the S.E.C. sued two of the largest crypto exchanges, Coinbase and Binance, accusing them of marketing unregistered securities to the public.
But the ruling on Thursday in a case involving the crypto company Ripple may complicate that argument and provide fodder for the crypto industry to defend itself in court.
The S.E.C. sued Ripple in December 2020, accusing the firm of violating securities laws in one of the first major legal fights involving cryptocurrencies. In the 34-page ruling on Thursday, Judge Analisa Torres of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said that Ripple did not break the law when the cryptocurrency it created, XRP, was sold on public exchanges.
The ruling was not a complete victory for the industry. Judge Torres also found that Ripple had violated securities law when it sold XRP to institutional investors, like sophisticated hedge funds.
A spokesman for the S.E.C. said in a statement that the agency was reviewing the decision. “We are pleased that the court found that XRP tokens were offered and sold by Ripple as investment contracts in violation of the securities laws in certain circumstances,” the statement said.
In an interview, Stuart Alderoty, Ripple’s chief legal officer, called the ruling “a win for the broader crypto industry.”
“Today’s decision puts appropriate checks and balances on the S.E.C.’s campaign of regulation by enforcement,” Mr. Alderoty said.
Ripple was founded in 2012 by a group of developers including Chris Larsen, who has long been ranked among the richest crypto executives in the world. The firm’s mission was to make international payments easier using the XRP token.
Over the years, the token became one of the most valuable cryptocurrencies on the market, and Ripple developed a loyal online following. But the S.E.C.’s lawsuit cast a pall over the company, and some exchanges stopped listing XRP for sale.
A resolution in the case had been widely anticipated in the crypto industry, and prominent executives celebrated Judge Torres’ ruling as an important victory.
“Most days I love being a lawyer,” Paul Grewal, the chief legal officer at Coinbase, wrote on Twitter. “Today is one of them.”
Tyler Winklevoss, one of the founders of the Gemini exchange, tweeted, “Adios Gary,” a reference to Gary Gensler, the S.E.C. chair who has spearheaded the government’s crackdown on the crypto industry.
But the Ripple ruling does not mean that the crypto industry will win its other cases. In the lawsuits against Binance and Coinbase, the S.E.C. argued that a wide slate of cryptocurrencies constitute securities. Judges in those cases will have to make separate determinations about whether the sale of those digital assets broke the law.