Making Sense of the Bitcoin Copyright Controversy
The cryptocurrency world has been shoved once more into the spotlight after Craig Wright – self-proclaimed inventor of Bitcoin – filed for two U.S. copyright registrations. One for Bitcoin´s whitepaper, and one for most of the crypto´s original code.
The news has spread like wildfire through most financial and tech outlets, and for good reasons.
As the most valuable and recognized cryptocurrency, any story involving potential ownership of Bitcoin´s underlying tech is bound to have profound economic implications.
The problem, though, is that, since the announcement and subsequent developments revolve around copyright law, there´s also a fair amount of misconceptions being tossed around like facts.
It is then a good idea to take a moment and go over these recent developments, paying particular attention to the legal framework surrounding them.
A Quick Recap on Bitcoin
It’s worth doing a quick recap on the basics of bitcoin before moving on.
Bitcoin is a decentralized cryptocurrency. The first one, as a matter of fact. You can think of it a form of electronic cash.
The technology behind it is fascinating (Nakamoto, 2008), but suffice it to say that Bitcoin allows people to transact digitally without intermediary entities (like banks) reliably.
How and why it works is a captivating topic in and of itself. But for our purpose, the main thing to keep in mind is that we don’t know who created it for certain.
Bitcoin was developed by an individual (or group) using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, and was released as an open-source software a decade ago.
Since its inception, the cryptocurrency has grown to become a worldwide phenomenon. Today it is used by millions of people to trade all manners of goods and services — each one conducted through virtual means.
Now, saying that the identity of the one(s) behind Bitcoin creation has been a topic of great interest for years would be an understatement. Bitcoin (and the tech that powers it) pretty much transformed digital economy.
Enter Craig Wright and The Copyright Registration
In 2016, the mystery of who was behind Bitcoin was seemingly solved after Craig Wright, an Australian entrepreneur, announced to be the fabled Satoshi Nakamoto (“Australian Entrepreneur Craig Wright”, 2016). A claim that has been hotly contested, and supported, by many high-profile names in the tech and cryptocurrency’s spheres ever since.
This has lead to the recent bitcoin copyright’s controversy.
On May 21st, the news broke that Wright had filed two copyright registrations for Bitcoin’s whitepaper and most of its original code. Some outlets, framed this as him being “granted U.S. copyright registrations for Bitcoin” (“Bitcoin Creator Craig S. Wright”, 2019). We’ll come back to the importance of that wording in a bit.
The registrations in question are as follows:
“U.S. copyright registration no. TXu 2-136-996, effective date April 11th, 2019, for the paper entitled bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, with year of completion 2008. The registration recognizes the author as Craig Steven Wright, using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto” (United States Registration No. txu002136996, 2019).
“U.S. copyright registration no. TX-8-708-058, effective date April 13th, 2019, for computer program entitled bitcoin, with year of completion 2009 and date of first publication January 3rd, 2009. The registration recognizes the author as Craig Steven Wright, using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Wright wrote most of version 0.1 of the bitcoin client software, and the registration covers the portions he authored” (United States Registration No. TX0008708058, 2019).
Many were quick to argue how these registrations played into the legitimacy of Wright’s claims of being Satoshi and authoring Bitcoin.
Fueled, most likely, by comments from Jimmy Nguyen’s, CEO of the Wright-founded nChain company, and his staunch supporter. He stated: “We are thrilled to see Craig Wright recognized as author of the landmark Bitcoin white paper and early code” (Nguyen, 2019).
Copyright Registration and Recognition of Authorship
This is where we need to make an important distinction. As I touched upon in a recent article for Bloomberg (Kharif, 2019), while a copyright registration creates a presumption of ownership, it is not determinative and thus does not legitimize authorship over an IP, regardless of what some of the rhetoric surrounding this news might have you believe.
When someone files for a copyright, the U.S. Copyright Office – a federal agency – makes no attempts to verify if the person is the actual author. Furthermore, the requirements for being “granted” one are minimal.
In fact, the process is rather straightforward; applicants can submit forms online and attach software code to them. This “granting,” then, is just standard procedure. At most, one can take it as an official statement made to the U.S. government by the claimant that the information being submitted is truthful.
Shortly after the announcement, the Copyright office – seeing the reaction the news of the registration was having – was quick to make a statement clarifying this very fact:
“As a general rule, when the Copyright Office receives an application for registration, the claimant certifies as to the truth of the statements made in the submitted materials. The Copyright Office does not investigate the truth of any statement made” (U.S. Copyright Office, 2019).
Having said that, there is an interesting tidbit in this particular registration process.
While getting a registration usually takes between six to eight months, Wright’s were approved far more quickly. Indeed, it was all done within three business days. Certainly unusual to say the least.
Another Claim Has Been Made Since
Further driving the point home that registrations do not represent confirmation of authorship, is the fact that another person has come forth with his own claim.
A Chinese resident going by the name Wei Liu registered Bitcoin’s whitepaper on May 24th. Soon after, it was revealed that this person was, in fact, the CEO of Coinsummer, a crypto market research firm:
“Liu is a crypto entrepreneur from China and said his goal in registering the document was to point out that copyright is technically meaningless in this context” (Biggs, 2019). Which is the perfect segue for another critical detail regarding intellectual property.
What If Wright Were to be Granted the Copyright?
It is essential to understand that, even if copyright over the whitepaper and the original code were to be granted to Wright, it wouldn’t actually protect it as an invention. That’s what patents are for.
Copyright is a form of IP protection for the expression of creative work. It does not protect ideas, systems, facts, or methods of operation. It may only protect the way these things are expressed.
Bitcoin was initially released under an open source MIT license. Meaning that everyone is free to use, reuse, copy, and modify the original code, for profit or otherwise. This makes any potential litigation extremely difficult.
That’s not to say copyright wouldn’t assist Wright – or whoever owned it – in suing someone under copyright claims. But it is unclear how someone would go about it.
This is most likely a topic that will continue to evolve as new developments unfold.
It isn’t the first time the cryptocurrency makes the headlines regarding intellectual property issues. And related news about things like Bitcoin trademark keep popping up, with almost bizarre plot twists.
It is too early to tell the future implications of it all. But as this news have real and profound effects on the markets, it’s necessary to keep a leveled head.
Australian Entrepreneur Craig Wright has Publicly Identified Himself as Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto. (2016, May 2). BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-36168863
Biggs, J. (2019, May 30). ‘Everyone Can Be Satoshi’: Liu Breaks Silence on Contest of Craig Wright’s Bitcoin Copyright. Coin Desk. Retrieved from https://www.coindesk.com/everyone-can-be-satoshi-wei-liu-on-contesting-craig-wrights-copyright
Bitcoin Creator Craig S. Wright (Satoshi Nakamoto) Granted US Copyright Registrations for Bitcoin White Paper and Code. (2019, May 21). Coingeek. Retrieved from https://coingeek.com/bitcoin-creator-craig-s-wright-satoshi-nakamoto-granted-us-copyright-registrations-for-bitcoin-white-paper-and-code/
Kharif, O. (2019, May 21). Man Who Claims To Be Bitcoin’s Inventor Registers Copyright for Its Code. Retrieved from Bloomberg.com: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-21/bitcoin-s-supposed-inventor-says-he-won-copyright-registration
Nakamoto, S. (2008, October 31). Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/54517945/Bitcoin_paper_Original_2.pdf?response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DBitcoin_A_Peer-to-Peer_Electronic_Cash_S.pdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A%2
Nguyen, J. (2019, May 21). Bitcoin SV (BSV) continues Wright’s original Bitcoin design and protocol. Bitcoin Association. Retrieved from https://bitcoinassociation.net/bitcoin-creator-craig-s-wright-satoshi-nakamoto-granted-us-copyright-registrations-for-the-bitcoin-white-paper-and-code/
U.S. Copyright Office. (2019, May 22). Latest Press Updates. Retrieved from U.S. Copyright Office Web site: https://www.copyright.gov/press-media-info/press-updates.html?loclr=twcop
Wright, C. S. (2017, November 6). Retrieved from SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3065857
Wright, C. S. (2019, April 11). United States Patent No. txu002136996. Retrieved from U.S. Copyright Office: https://cocatalog.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?Search_Arg=txu002136996&Search_Code=REGS&PID=j6k8E-UTwO-zN-Dl4zmxgATy0Rk&SEQ=20190607133304&CNT=25&HIST=1
Wright, S. C. (2019, April 13). United States Patent No. TX0008708058. Retrieved from https://cocatalog.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?Search_Arg=tx0008708058&Search_Code=REGS&PID=BrxtTDhSaJZQqxmYWzP6K6_qGipy&SEQ=20190607134852&CNT=25&HIST=1