If fear is the mindkiller, then stupidity must be the pocketbook-killer. Just ask the crypto bros who made a three million dollar mistake by failing to read the fine print.
An anonymous NFT group called Spice DAO (decentralized anonymous organization) made waves earlier this year when they triumphantly tweeted about their acquisition of a rare art book: Jodorowsky’s Dune, the guidebook to an ambitious but ill-fated film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. These spiceheads had big plans to convert the book into NFTs, burn the physical copy, and adapt the story into an animated series. There’s just one problem: little did they know, the purchase didn’t mean they actually own the copyright to Dune. All they own is one very, very expensive book.
Before we get too deep into this tale of crypto folly, a little primer on the book: back in 1974, director Alexander Jodorowsky set out to make a film adaptation of Dune. Two years into the process, the project was killed due to a lack of funding, but not before it became the stuff of cinematic legend. Jodorowsky envisioned the film at a whopping fourteen hours long, with a score by Pink Floyd; meanwhile, Salvador Dalí signed on to play Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino, though his exorbitant salary may have been the project’s kiss of death. Dead-set on becoming the highest-paid actor in history, Dalí demanded to be paid $100,000 per minute of screen time. Orson Welles was to play the evil Baron Harkonnen, and even Mick Jagger signed on for an unspecified part. Ironically enough, the unmade film later became the subject of a 2014 documentary.
Before the project was ultimately canned, Jodorowsky presented studio executives with an extensive book of concept art, which included set designs, character designs, and a storyboard of the entire film sketched by Moebius, the legendary French cartoonist. It’s estimated that somewhere between ten and twenty copies of Jodorowsky’s Dune still exist in the wild; periodically, they come up at auction, fetching somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000. Last November, one such copy went up for auction at Christie’s, where appraisers expected it would sell for around $40,000.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when Spice DAO swooped in with a bid that went way, way over asking price. Spice DAO paid more than a hundred times the modest estimate, taking home the book for $3 million. According to an investigation by BuzzFeed News, the money was crowdfunded by the Dune-loving cryptocurrency enthusiasts of Spice DAO, who pitched in with the promise that they’d get to vote on the book’s future. Spice DAO stated that its goal was “to issue a collection of NFTs that are technically innovative and culturally disruptive.” Burning the book would be “an incredible marketing stunt which could be recorded on video”; the video itself would then be sold as an NFT. (Seems like these crypto bros have had too much spice, doesn’t it?)
When Spice DAO crowed about their purchase on Twitter, the Internet was quick to set them straight. Buying Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t confer the copyright needed to produce Jodorowsky’s vision; it only confers one very old, very expensive book. Spice DAO also intended to make the book public, which is a noble aim—or it would be, if the book wasn’t already free and available on Steve Jobs’ Internet. Ultimately, Spice DAO has made a very expensive mistake—one exemplifying how some crypto bros with millions to burn don’t even know what they’re buying.
Spice DAO doesn’t want to hear it. In a post on Medium following the blowback, the group provided an update on their master plan: “After two months of outreach, conversations with former business partners and consultations with legal counsel, we have not been able to reach an agreement with any of the rights holders involved in the creation of the contents of the book of collected storyboards of Jodorowsky’s Dune.” Seems like a dead end, right? But Spice DAO won’t be stopped. According to the post, they’re having “a whirlwind week of meetings with industry professionals,” including Drake’s lawyer, an animation producer on Kill Bill, a writer on Netflix’s Love Death, & Robots, three Los Angeles animation studios, a science fiction publisher, and “Roble Ridge Productions, who have relationships with marquee Hollywood actors.” The spice—and the meetings—must flow.
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According to trademark attorney Kirstey Stewart, Spice DAO is in for a rude awakening, whenever they come to their senses. As Stewart told The Guardian, “In order to produce or authorize derivative works such as an animated series, Spice DOA would need to obtain licenses from the Herbert estate, as well as potentially Jodorowsky (and any other authors such as Michel Seydoux) if the adaptation was based on the Jodorowsky book. Similar to how buying a Batman comic does not give you the inherent rights to produce a new Batman film, the purchasing of this director’s bible does not give Spice DOA any intrinsic rights to produce new material.”
In Dune, Herbert envisions a world without computers; as the lore would have it, “thinking machines” were once mankind’s greatest adversary. Maybe Herbert was onto something there?
UPDATE 3/1: Spice DAO would like us all to know that we’ve misunderstood them. In a report at The Verge, the group aims to clarify its goals and set the record straight, insisting that they’re not looking to make Dune, but rather an homage to Dune. “Dude we aren’t using Dune’s IP [intellectual property] to make the animated film,” group co-founder Soban Saqib told one member in a December chatroom. Spice DAO has since published an FAQ stating that Jodorowsky’s Dune and the animated series have “nothing to do with each other”; the latter isn’t an adaptation of Jodorowsky or Herbert’s work, but rather something new, with Dune-y vibes.
In Early February, Spice DAO held a vote to determine what that new project should be, allowing members to throw their crypto coins behind the pitch of their choosing (the group trades in $SPICE, naturally). The winning pitch, called Dolkoroth, came from a four-person team known as the Lorecrafter’s Group. Dolkoroth is about the last member of a priesthood whose members are implanted with spaceship-powering batteries; we meet him as he teams up with a young “space barbarian” to look for a long-deserted Earth, convinced he’ll find God there. Sound Dune-y enough for you? Last week, Spice DAO announced that they were in “advanced negotiations with a blue-chip Los Angeles animation studio and the screenwriter of a hit Netflix show.”
As for the book itself? For now, Spice DAO has failed to gain the necessary approvals to post the book online in its entirety, though they want to be very clear that they will not burn the book. Although things have stalled, the project of bringing Jodorowsky’s Dune to the masses remains the paramount concern for many of the group’s members. One member, Tyler Mincey, tells The Verge, “It’s fine that this group of people who came together for a primary purpose ended up with more pooled resources to do other projects like an animated series, but we should achieve that primary purpose first.”
UPDATE 5/25: The woes continue for the Dune bros. Spice DAO has been plunged into turmoil following troubling accusations about one of its founders, Charlotte Fang, and their history of reprehensible statements. In addition to co-founding Spice DAO, Fang also manages Milady, another NFT project. Fang has now been outed as Miya, a user whose blog and tweets contained some abhorrent statements. “Miya” compared Black people to apes, described homosexuality as a “disease,” and claimed that the nation could be “saved” by killing its Jewish citizens. “Miya” has also been accused of grooming anorexic girls. Fang has fessed up to their secret identity as Miya, saying, “Unequivocally, my real views hold no room for hate, and I detest abusers & groomers—trolling about it was juvenile, but in reality I’ve never harmed a fly.” (Where have we heard that one before?) Fang has stepped down from Milady, but their status with Spice DAO remains unclear.
Things aren’t going too great for Spice DAO across the board, it would seem. In the months since they bought the book, the value of $PICE has tanked (not that it was ever worth much to begin with—according to Coinbase, the current price is $0.000139 per $PICE, which is 65.30% below the all time high of $0.000401). But hey, things aren’t all bad. The bros have finally found a screenwriter in Phil Gelatt, who received an Emmy for his work on Netflix’s Love Death + Robots. “We are thrilled to partner with Phil who brings a bold vision and industry experience to our group of dreamers,” said the user Kortelin, a member of Spice DAO’s core team. “We are excited to pioneer decentralized storytelling as a new form of collaborative media that is directed, steered, and owned by the community itself.” Best of luck, Spice DAO. Maybe start by clearing the heinous bigots out of that community.
UPDATE 7/28: The saga of the Dune bros may finally be at its end. Spice DAO recently began “Redemption Phase One,” a shift in direction that seems to spell a slow doom for its ambitious plans. Rather than operate as a collective with a formal voting structure, the group is changing its name to “Spice Club,” a “members only group.” Spice Club will allow $SPICE token holders to cash out by withdrawing their coins from the group treasury (which currently holds about $1 million), while those who remain can hope to earn returns from the group’s flagging initiatives. Now, their agenda has shifted: Spice Club hopes to make money from an NFT collaboration with comic artist Frank Miller, and they’re betting big on reselling the book that started it all. The group plans to sell its Dune bible during the fourth quarter of 2023 when Dune: Part Two is expected to hit theaters, but recouping their $3 million investment in the currently dismal cryptocurrency climate seems unlikely. The leader of the project, a user named Kortelin, indicated that the book has “no willing buyers” at present.
Meanwhile, group co-founder Soban Saqib, who distanced himself from the collective after the Charlotte Fang incident, has stepped back even further, relinquishing his access to the treasury. “Really wish this worked out better, DAO delusion was at its peak when the community went into this journey together,” Saqib posted on Discord after Redemption Phase One began. “At least the DAO is making people whole and not letting hubris get in the way.” Not letting hubris get in the way: like that’s never been a problem for this group before!
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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