Image from "Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'Dune.'" (Image: City Film and Snowfort Pictures.)

Crypto Bros Buy Jodorowsky’s Dune “Bible” for Millions, Make Total Mess of Plans for It

People behind the project see blockchains as the game changer oil and spice were to the Dune lore, but forget how greed and capital affected the people.

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Last weekend, a crypto collective known as $SPICE DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) went viral online for sharing that not only did they win a recently auctioned, rare copy of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune manuscript for millions last month, but they would embark on a mission to make the book public and accessible via an animated series.

Though I wondered why they would publicly announce they were likely going to commit a copyright crime, they had us and many others at the first point (before losing us later). When we last wrote about the book’s auction back in early November 2021, I said, “Please, please, if you are reading this, upload a PDF of this book online or donate it to an institution that can navigate opening it to the public. Consider it a gift to science fiction nerds, film historians, archivists, and artists. I’m not sure if what I’m asking for is even legal, but it definitely sounds like a tax write-off.”

However, it was the elements that followed that rubbed people the wrong way. The news was met with backlash from many and even inspired its own meme.

Timeline of events

Soon after the coveted book went up for auction, $SPICE DAO swiftly took action to acquire the book. The group crowdsourced the funds to win the auction, but in the meantime, one of the (then) leaders of this group, Soban Saquib, a.k.a “Soby,” fronted $3 million needed to win the Christie’s auction. Technically, he won in December and then transferred the ownership of the physical book to the group, which took in around $12 million to reimburse Soby, pay for the supposed animated series, and more. Only a few members will have access to the physical book for safety reasons.

It wasn’t until the January tweets and public declaration that some began to realize the issues with any steps forward that the project would take. As easy as it is to laugh it off as the audacity of the crypto bro—ignoring legality and only seeing green by believing that because they own a copy of a story/manuscript, they can do whatever with it—the truth of what’s happening is much more complicated.

Many (likely most) people involved with $SPICE DAO embody the new internet archetype of the crypto bro and the “new money” libertarian visionary. They realize at every turn the need to pivot (better than doubling down, at least, which is very en vogue right now) before the studios and courts come for their necks. However, the situation is complicated by the stated values of the organization and competing visions.

Around the Discord (which currently contains about 3,000 members), there may be different ideas of what next steps to take. Still, their website (Dune.foundation) outlines the goals of working towards preservation, accessibility, and awareness.

$SPICE DAO stresses at every turn that they want to know what the people want, and they clearly outline a voting system to make it semi-democratic. The catch is that this is all behind paywalls, and there is nothing on the site that shows this will change. People who contributed to the crowdfunding that bought the book feel like their votes should matter more because they have more to lose, “for the people” be damned. However, if this is about sharing something for everyone, shouldn’t this be considered a donation for the greater good?

The motivations behind those involved

Reading through the forums (only three threads at the moment and one how-to thread) and Discord, there seem to be three motivations for people involved: the belief in the stated goals, the desire to profit, and the observer with a bucket of popcorn. Sure, there is the occasional troll, but the groups consist of mainly the first two.

Sometimes, it’s kind of hard to tell where the leaders stand because they talk about a democratic and transparent process, but much of this is shrouded in mystery and takes buying into the project via $SPICE token (bitcoin) to have a say/vote. When publications like The Verge come out with articles asking legitimate questions about $SPICE DAO’s goals and how they plan to achieve them, the official Twitter is hostile. Then, they share the article on Medium and Discord as important and insightful.

On the forums (like the Discord, but more on topic), the opinions reflect the mixed motivations of the group—which exist in any group. Still, people are also publicly promoting ideas that go against $SPICE DAO’s stated values and goals. More than one person advocated for burning the already rare book to increase the value of the digital assets. When there was pushback, one commenter said they don’t care what “normies that probably didn’t even know the book existed think.”

A more recent thread that is dead silent proposed the idea of donating the “book to a reputable library or collection which will make it legally available to the public” and shutting down $SPICE DAO because the project was spiraling out of control and away from the original vision.

This right here is why it took everyone so long to understand what was happening because, people obviously looking to make money aside, there was a growing disconnect between those that bought in to do something for the public good and those saying, “We can do this, make money, and legitimize this goldrush venture of Web3, crypto, and NFTs.”

Why are there no original creatives involved?

Another reason there is a misalignment between the competing values and supposed love “the vision Jodorowsky set forth” is because there are very few (if any) artists associated with the original project working with $SPICE DAO. A studio may have said Jodorowsky’s take on the adaptation is over (there is a whole excellent documentary about this), but this group is not working with many (if any) of the creatives whose work they value so much.

While Frank Herbert may have passed, this project goes beyond the author because this isn’t about a rare book copy. Instead, it’s with a rare copy of the manuscript of an adaptation, featuring work by many different creators. Judging by the group’s website, it almost seems that Jodorowsky and others have passed away, when they are very much still alive and working on their craft.

Between Discord and online interactions, there is no indication that anyone involved with Jodorowsky’s Dune is working with $SPICE DAO’s project. While there’s limited name dropping, they’re using high-profile properties and associations to hype up fellow “spirit warriors.” These are people associated with projects like Kill Bill and Love, Death & Robots, and representatives like an “entertainment attorney” for Drake and various unnamed animation studios.

Spiraling out of control

Being a derivative of a thing that is itself a loose version of another thing is not inherently wrong. Jodorowsky and Mobieus’s The Incal was the successor of his vision for Dune. The money raised in this case could have skipped buying the book altogether to just make this project based on the pages of the manuscript floating around online (a few clicks away from “Jodorowsky’s dune manuscript pdf” on Google) or by talking to the creatives involved.

They could have even used Web3 and NFTs for this project and said it was inspired by Jodorowsky’s Dune without buying the book. It wouldn’t be as accessible for everyone (i.e., “normies”) and would stil attract some derision, but at least the project would be straightforward with its premise, aligned with its stated goals, and involve limited exploitation (as much as you can considering how blockchains have proven to be damaging to the secondhand PC parts economy and the environment). It would essentially be a fan project, and hey, even Kickstarter is riding that blockchain train, so they would have a home.

Ultimately, I think the reason this didn’t end up happening is that too many people came to make money. That wasn’t the original goal (proven by the fact that the goal is constantly changing due to the “democratic” structure), but those who came in genuinely altruistic seem to have either left or ended up seduced by the spice.

(Image: City Film and Snowfort Pictures)

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.