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Kate Linebaugh: There’s a fight brewing in the cryptocurrency world over a digital coin worth about $30 billion, Dogecoin. On one side, there’s an upstart newcomer.
Angel Versetti: My Name is Angel Versetti. I describe myself as an investopreneur of crypto, investopreneur meaning both an investor and entrepreneur in one.
Kate Linebaugh: On the other side are some of the original players who developed the currency.
Jens Weichers: My name is Jens Weichers. I’ve been on and off with the Dogecoin project since relatively close to the start.
Kate Linebaugh: What they’re fighting over is the Dogecoin trademark. Both Angel and Jens each say they are the rightful steward of the currency that was created eight years ago as a joke. The winner of the fight gets the rights to one of crypto’s most adored brands.
Okay. So there are two groups, they’re fighting over a joke currency, and this fight is taking place in the halls of trademark offices?
Caitlin Ostroff: Yeah, in the US Patent and Trademark Office, which I guess, if you’re thinking of dramatic legal battles, is probably not the place you picture, especially for cryptocurrency. Dogecoin and the other kind of jokey cryptos that really did form in the beginning of the cryptocurrency boom, they’re kind of having this coming-of-age moment where it’s saying, “We may still have our jokey roots, but we now need to act like an actual organization.”
Kate Linebaugh: Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business, and power. I’m Kate Linebaugh. It’s Monday, September 20th.
Coming up on the show, the dog fight over Dogecoin.
Dogecoin was founded as a joke in 2013, and this year it’s had a resurgence.
Speaker 5: If you think the cryptocurrency craze is a joke, at least one digital currency creator would agree with you.
Speaker 6: Dogecoin, that is the crypto invented as a joke.
Speaker 7: One lucky investor’s share a Doge now valued at over $11 billion.
Speaker 6: Dogecoin’s price spiked. It actually doubled last night. Please show me the real value of a crypto invented as a joke. Anything? Get out of here.
Speaker 5: Wow. Such value as Doge might say,
Kate Linebaugh: This was quite a change for Dogecoin, which was designed to be worthless.
Caitlin Ostroff: It was literally meant to be ridiculous. It was created in a handful of hours by taking another old cryptocurrency project’s and they went, “How can we make this as ridiculous as possible?”
Kate Linebaugh: That’s our colleague, Caitlin Ostroff. She’s been following Dogecoin this year.
Caitlin Ostroff: They took the doge from the viral meme of the dog with bad spelling habits. They used Comic Sans font, which is the worst font, to put on the logo. The logo of Dogecoin is a Shiba Inu on this gold coin going, “Very currency. Wow. Such doge.” If you’re sitting there thinking you’re going to make a serious cryptocurrency investment, it’s not something that inspires this sense of this is a great cryptocurrency.
Kate Linebaugh: While it may not have been a serious investment, people thought it was a great joke and a passionate online community formed around Dogecoin.
Caitlin Ostroff: They love the joke, honestly. People love dogs and people love dog memes and, if you put that together with a cryptocurrency, everyone’s like, “Oh yeah, we love doge. We’re going to valley around this.” And that community was very, very strong.
Kate Linebaugh: Fans created Dogecoin memes, fan art, even songs.
The Dogecoin community did more than just goof around the internet. They also banded together to raise Dogecoin for charity. The fans came up with a motto for the currency using the letters of doge, D-O-G-E, do only good every day.
Caitlin Ostroff: And so in addition to just all of these doge memes that were going viral with the currency, they were also doing all of these charitable fundraising projects where people were saying, “Hey, let’s raise Dogecoin,” again, this joke, insane cryptocurrency, “and let’s use it to actually fund charity,” and anything else that they could find.
Kate Linebaugh: So the community started looking for causes to support while promoting Dogecoin. And they found them. They sent athletes to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Speaker 8: Jamaica was able to send its bobsled team to the Olympics with the help of crowdsourcing and a digital currency called, what is it, Matt?
Speaker 8: Dogecoin.
Matt: Or doggy coin?
Kate Linebaugh: They sponsored a car in NASCAR featuring the doge meme.
Speaker 10: A 16 year old from Chicago noticed Josh Wise having a good run in an underfunded car early this season and got all his fellow shives on Reddit.com’s NASCAR forum to chip in these Dogecoins, which is an-
Kate Linebaugh: They even raised money to build water wells in Kenya.
Speaker 11: The online campaign to raise money for Tana River revolved around a growing form of online currency known as the Dogecoin. 100% of the money raised will help sponsor the drilling of two wells providing access to water.
Kate Linebaugh: These kinds of projects required money and the community needed a way to handle the money they raised. So the original creators established the Dogecoin Foundation, a nonprofit in Colorado. Jens Weichers has been a board member of the foundation since its early days.
Jens Weichers: People started wanting to donate Dogecoin to charitable causes and interesting causes, but doing these things and especially if you were to actually take in donations and then forward them to a charity obviously creates liability, risks, creates governance questions, and other issues, and so the idea very early on was maybe we should incorporate this and maybe we should create an organization.
Kate Linebaugh: Aside from organizing these charitable efforts, Jens says the Dogecoin Foundation took on another big job, defending the community’s right to use the doge meme itself. The image of the Shiba Inu dog had been licensed by a merchandiser. Jens says the foundation wanted Dogecoin fans to be able to use the meme without facing legal consequences.
Jens Weichers: And we basically then approached them, talked to them, talked things through with them, and ultimately came to an agreement that they wouldn’t in any way harm the community, wouldn’t sue someone from the community or sue someone for producing merchandise from the community. And so we handled that and handled that through the foundation as well then after it was founded.
Kate Linebaugh: But while the foundation was doing some critical work for the Dogecoin world, there was one key thing that it didn’t do. The foundation didn’t trademark the Dogecoin name.
Jens Weichers: No, we ultimately didn’t because there was some disagreement within the developers also is this really necessary? Isn’t this overkill? Won’t this be unnecessary in a year when all this dies down and everything becomes much quieter? And ultimately we thought, yeah, probably and left it at that.
Caitlin Ostroff: What a trademark does is it basically just gives you exclusive rights to your brand name and so if you see other people then go use that same brand name on a similar product or service, you can say I’m requiring you to change that because I think people could be confused as to your brand versus mine. So it gives you that kind of brand protection. They give you the right to tell other fake brands or confusing products that pop up, you can say, “Hey, we own the trademark to this. We have the exclusive right to use Dogecoin as a cryptocurrency and because of that you legally have to change your name. You have to change your website. You need to change what you’re doing immediately because it’s in violation of our rights.”
Kate Linebaugh: As Jens and his friends predicted, the popularity of Dogecoin started dropping in 2016. And without as many people making memes or buying the currency, the Dogecoin Foundation found itself having less and less to do.
Jens Weichers: There wasn’t really a need to have an organization that had five people on a board that would meet every couple of weeks that would actively do much work. It was just not viable also in terms of just having full-time jobs and then doing that on the side was just not something that was really viable for all of us. And so it essentially went dormant.
Kate Linebaugh: And then Dogecoin got a jolt after one man started tweeting about it, calling himself the Dogefather and sharing photos of his own Shiba Inu puppy.
Speaker 12: Dogecoin, the underdog crypto that has gained in popularity thanks to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Doge has climbed more than 1100% so far this year.
Kate Linebaugh: With Dogecoin surging, the fight over its trademark really began. That’s after the break.
Late last year, Angel Versetti started eyeing Dogecoin. He’s the owner of a company called Moon Rabbit, which promises to use crypto technology to help people live longer.
Angel Versetti: The big vision around it is to seek solutions that could help unlock the basically life-extension technologies, everything under the umbrella of longevity. Crypto and Web 3, they offer a perfect tool to collaborate in a decentralized and trustless manner.
Kate Linebaugh: When did you first become interested in Dogecoin?
Angel Versetti: I used to play with it a while ago, maybe seven or eight years. So this was just a fun thing to play with. So I mined on my rig together with some other coins I did back then basically this was just to enjoy. There was nothing serious in it. And most recently I paid attention to it last year with the COVID lockdown and this is when I started looking at Dogecoin as something with a potential.
Kate Linebaugh: As meme stocks, like GameStop and AMC, shot up in value earlier this year, Angel thought Dogecoin also had the potential to go to the moon.
Angel Versetti: The code had been abandoned for many years. Nobody worked on this project. The only thing that was really there is just a funny picture of a funny dog and Elon Musk occasionally tweeting that I’m the CEO of this coin, but he also did it with a big bit of irony, and this was a perfect recipe for those crazy guys. Okay, let’s do with Dogecoin what we did with GameStop.
Kate Linebaugh: Angel and his company Moon Rabbit came up with a challenge, making Dogecoin a top five crypto coin by market cap. They sent videos to celebrities, including Elon Musk, urging them to promote the currency.
Angel Versetti: The mission was simple. We wanted to write a letter basically on behalf of the dog, no matter how silly that sounds, it did work. So the idea was that Doge as a sad dog would write a letter to Elon Musk.
Speaker 13: Dear Elon, I have always wanted to visit the moon but never had a chance to.
Angel Versetti: Saying that I also want to go to the moon and you launch spaceships, so please launch me to the moon as well.
Speaker 13: Please, please, let the prophecy come true and send me to the moon this lunar meme year. Yours much barkfully, Doge.
Angel Versetti: And this is what we did. So it was almost a joke, same as Dogecoin itself. Dogecoin was a joke and we made a joke mission for the joke coin. We never thought it would become real as it did.
Kate Linebaugh: Whether because of Moon Rabbit’s videos or not, Elon Musk actually did promise to send a Dogecoin wallet to the moon, literally to the moon, on a SpaceX rocket, but Moon Rabbit didn’t stop there. It started its own Dogecoin foundation, which Angel says aims to update the code, to make transactions faster, and make mining the coin less energy intensive. Moon Rabbit also took that step that Jens and his foundation never took. It applied for the Dogecoin trademark.
Who are you to decide what’s right for Dogecoin?
Angel Versetti: Oh, well, I’m not trying to decide. I’m just trying to take things into my hands. Ultimately I absolutely have no power to force people to choose it, so from that perspective, I surely don’t think I know it best. Something is better than nothing. Basically we came to an abandoned project, there was nobody taking care of it or creating some sort of technical upgrades or anything else.
Kate Linebaugh: Right, so your argument is that the original Dogecoin Foundation was a bad steward for Dogecoin.
Angel Versetti: I can’t say good or bad. It simply was not there. The foundation itself had been defunct. So there was no team, there was no legal structure. Nobody took care of the project.
Kate Linebaugh: After Moon Rabbit applied for the trademark, the original foundation reunited last month, bringing back many of the original members, including Jens. And now they’re disputing Moon Rabbit’s trademark claim.
And what’s your argument for why you should have the Dogecoin trademark when you had a chance to get it before, but didn’t do it?
Jens Weichers: Honestly, because you don’t have to register a trademark. It certainly helps you to do so, but when you’ve established a brand and have been using that someone else can’t just register that and then come to you and say, “You can’t use this any longer,” if they very, very expressly obviously started using that and registered that in bad faith, because you had been using that and it became famous through your use of that.
Kate Linebaugh: Their argument is you guys went to sleep. Your foundation went dormant, you weren’t taking care of the coin, and it was sort of fair game, kind of like squatter’s rights, if you will.
Jens Weichers: That’s not how trademark works. That’s not how the open-source movement works. And it’s just puzzling how someone can say we are Dogecoin when they never spoke with the development team of Dogecoin that was still working on Dogecoin, when they never engaged with the code, when they never engaged with the people behind it. So it’s just a puzzling argument.
Kate Linebaugh: So from your reporting, Caitlin, does the original Dogecoin Foundation’s argument hold water?
Caitlin Ostroff: Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the actual trademark lawyers and the regulators to figure out like who actually has claim to the Dogecoin name. The original Dogecoin Foundation did reach out to another similarly named project and say, “We think you need to change your name because it’s imposing on our brand.” And it lent to the idea that they’re already kind of acting like they have that trademark designation because they think that their historic use of Dogecoin should grant them it.
Kate Linebaugh: So they’re starting to flex their muscles. They got the band back together and they’re like-
Caitlin Ostroff: They’re showing their teeth, yeah.
Kate Linebaugh: Oh, sorry. They got their pack back together and now they’re showing their teeth.
Caitlin Ostroff: Yes. They got their pack back together and they’re showing their teeth.
Kate Linebaugh: And, as cryptocurrency markets mature, turn into businesses, is there still room for a joke currency?
Caitlin Ostroff: That’s kind of the question. If Dogecoin can’t be a joke anymore, it’s kind of like what can. It had kind of like this really fun backstory and people identified with it. And now you have the question of is it still a joke crypto? Can it be both a joke cryptocurrency and a mainstream cryptocurrency project?
Kate Linebaugh: Suddenly I feel sad. Suddenly it feels like the joke’s over and we all have to grow up.
Caitlin Ostroff: I mean, that’s how part of the community feels and honestly, it’s partly how I feel covering it because I’ve really enjoyed the fact that you have this completely nonsensical cryptocurrency, because so much of what I write about is serious. I’ve kind of enjoyed Dogecoin for that and now it feels like it’s kind of joining those ranks.
Kate Linebaugh: That’s all for today, Monday, September 20th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal. If you like our show, follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re out every weekday afternoon. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.