There is a very interesting dispute taking place in cryptocurrency circles right now that has nothing to do with price, hacking, exchanges, or any other of the usual hot topics surrounding this area. This time copyright is being used to try to answer one of the most important questions for cryptocurrency enthusiasts, who is Satoshi Nakamoto?
A bit of background for those unfamiliar with the question. In October 2008, a paper was published in a cryptography mailing list detailing a new peer-to-peer electronic currency called Bitcoin. The paper was written using the pseudonym ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’, and it had no copyright claims whatsoever; to this day, the identity of the author is highly disputed. Satoshi became a mythical figure in cryptocurrency circles, with the secrecy surrounding his/her/their identity fuelling Bitcoin’s mystique.
Satoshi’s identity remained a mystery until 2015, when Wired published an article detailing supposed evidence pointing that an Australian academic called Craig Wright was Nakamoto. The claim was disputed by several people, and evidence started mounting up that Wright’s claim was a hoax, but he kept telling everyone that he was Nakamoto nonetheless.
In recent months, Wright has been ramping up his legal efforts to be recognised as Satoshi Nakamoto. He first started threatening to sue anyone who denied he is Satoshi, and has actually initiated libel proceedings against various people in English courts. But the latest development has been to claim copyright ownership over the Bitcoin paper, and in April 2019 he registered the Bitcoin white paper with the US Copyright Office, and the claim has been registered, and a certificate issued.
So case closed, Craig Wright is Satoshi Nakamoto, the US Copyright Office has decided it… right?
Not so fast. Copyright registration does not equate ownership. The reason for this rests in the fact that copyright subsists without registration, in most countries around the world there are not even copyright registries. The United States is almost unique in offering a copyright registration system, as it is required if a rightsholder wants to enforce their copyright. US copyright law allows for this registration, and for a certificate to be issued, but this certificate is mostly to prove that the registered work falls under protected subject matter, but it cannot act as evidence of ownership, as the copyright office does not carry checks to verify authorship, it only serves as a certificate of registration. Other people can make a copyright claim on the same work, and if there is a dispute, the courts would have to decide. Moreover, including false information in a registration could incur penalties.
The US Copyright Office has had to make a statement given the amount of interest in the subject. Their clarification should lay to rest any factual claims made by Wright:
“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.
A registration represents a claim to an interest in a work protected by copyright law, not a determination of the truth of the claims therein. It is possible for multiple, adverse claims to be registered at the Copyright Office. The Copyright Office does not have an opposition procedure for copyright registrations, such as the procedures available at the Patent and Trademark Office for patents and trademark registrations. Disputes over the claims in a registration may be heard before federal courts, including disputes over authorship of a work. Someone who intentionally includes false information in an application may be subject to criminal penalties.”
Furthermore, the Bitcoin paper remains pseudonymous. It has copyright, and the author is presumed to be the one who signed it. It will be a matter of evidence for anyone to prove that they are Satoshi Nakamoto, but the registration is no such evidence.
To make things more interesting, the white paper is shared online in the Bitcoin.org website, which acts as one of the main hubs for Bitcoin development. The paper is offered under an open MIT licence, which is unfortunate as this is a software licence that mostly covers code. However, if one takes the Bitcoin white paper as documentation, then it would be covered under the terms of the licence. These terms are extremely broad, pretty much keep all copyright notices and share all the source code in derivative works. It would be better if the white paper was shared under a content licence, such as a Creative Commons licence, the Attribution licence would do the trick nicely (CC-BY).
So Craig Wright does not own the Bitcoin white paper, he will first have to prove that he’s Satoshi Nakamoto.
One should ask the question of why is Wright using such transparently feeble tactics to try to prove he’s Satoshi, when he could very easily prove it by moving some of the coins that everyone agrees belong to the real Satoshi, or he could sign a message using the private key of the genesis block, or any other method described here. Until then, libel and copyright law just won’t cut it.
Another important question to ask is why is Craig Wright doing this right now? Perhaps he’s annoyed by the lack of recognition and widespread derision that he’s subjected to from the cryptocurrency community. But the reason may simply be the basest reason of all, money. Wright has a financial stake as he has released his own version of Bitcoin (called Bitcoin SV), which he claims is the true Bitcoin. When news spread that Wright had registered the copyright in the white paper, the Bitcoin SV price shot up considerably almost overnight (from $60 to $111). For someone who has access to a fortune in early-mined Bitcoin, he seems keen on promoting a competitor. Anything that he can do to move the price in this way will benefit him financially.