The Battle To Be Satoshi

  • Co-Contributor Preston Byrne, Partner Anderson Kill

Who is Satoshi?

In the debate over the identity of Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, there are two facts which are broadly agreed upon: first, nobody knows who Satoshi really is; and second, it is more likely than not that Satoshi is not the person named Craig Steven Wright. 

However, this second fact is something Wright has contested for nearly half a decade, since a May 2016 interview with the BBC in which Wright told the world that he was, in fact, Satoshi Nakamoto, adding for good measure that he didn’t “want money… fame… [or] adoration. I just want to be left alone.” 

Wright appears to have had his wishes granted for the most part, with the notable exception that he has not been left alone, nor does he appear to want to be. Far from fading into obscurity, after his interview, Wright began aggressively expanding into commercial ventures in the Bitcoin and blockchain space. This included, among other things, establishing a software company called nChain which has filed, according to its own public statements, for over 900patents in the Bitcoin/blockchain space, which some claim makes the company the second most prolific patent filer in the space. It has also included Wright creating a fork of a fork of Bitcoin called “Bitcoin Satoshi Vision” which claims to solve Bitcoin’s scalability issues by increasing the maximum block size to two gigabytes – the software engineering equivalent of saying that you can increase the maximum weight limit of a 5-ton bridge by driving 20-ton trucks over it.

Wright’s activities in the Bitcoin space have also included a number of legal misadventures, not least of which is federal litigation in Florida in the matter of Kleiman v. Wright in which the estate of the late computer programmer Dave Kleiman, one of the people most think might actually be Satoshi Nakamoto, is suing Wright based on his claim to control Bitcoin addresses which, per Kleiman’s estate, actually belong to Kleiman. That case is not going well for Wright; Wright has been slammed by the judge for allegedly producing forged documents and allegedly making perjurious testimony. Wright has also not been able or willing to publicly demonstrate the ability to access the coins at those addresses by engaging in the simple step of signing a message with a private key he claims to control. 

Copyright Claim

With this as our background, we arrive at the latest of legal misfortune. Wright has threatened to sue, a well-known public portal for accessing information about the Bitcoin protocol, for copyright infringement for hosting the Bitcoin White Paper. 

Business intellectual property disputes generally fall within one of three buckets: trademarks, patents, or copyright. Each is a distinct category of IP which serve a distinct purpose. Trademarks have been used for hundreds of years by providers of goods and services, initially by craftsmen like pewterers and silversmiths but now by businesses of practically any kind, to denote their goods from other, similar products in the marketplace. Patents, by contrast, are protected methods of implementing machine processes, or machine or object designs. 

Copyright subsists in works of authorship, like software or the written word (including this article). Copyright includes, in the case of written work, the exclusive right to reproduce, prepare derivative works of, and distribute copies of the work. So, for the article you’re currently reading, Hailey and Preston have written this article, hold copyright to it and we’ve decided to post it online for your reading enjoyment. 

It is also possible for us to license this article. So, for example, we could agree that, when we publish the article, we would grant permission to any person to copy the article and share it as long as they weren’t doing so for commercial purposes, under a license like sharealike 3.0. We could also disclaim copyright under a license like Creative Commons CC-0 and say that people could use our work for whatever purpose they wished. Or we could enforce copyright, sending angry letters to anyone who reproduced or posted this article without our permission. 

What Wright is doing to is enforcing a copyright claim against on the basis that he is claiming he is the author of the Bitcoin White Paper. 

Knowing what we do about the factual background of Wright’s IP portfolio, this would appear to be the latest iteration in a years-long strategy by Wright and others to create a defensible IP portfolio based on his claim to be Satoshi Nakamoto. 

In this case, Wright filed for registration of his copyright over the Bitcoin White Paper with the US Copyright Office in 2019. Obtaining a registration doesn’t require actual proof that the author wrote the work, but it would have required Wright to attest in writing that the statement made in his registration application – i.e. that he wrote the paper – was true. 

There are two reasons why one files a registration with the Copyright Office. First, registration is prima facie evidence of ownership, if done within 5 years of the work’s first publication (which didn’t happen in this case, as the Bitcoin White Paper was first written in 2009 and Wright didn’t file until 2019). Second, a copyright owner cannot file an infringement lawsuit in U.S. federal court until the Copyright Office has registered the work. 

Burden of Proof

What registration doesn’t do is prove that Wright owns the copyright in question or dispense of the requirement for Wright, at trial, to prove that he owns exclusive rights over the Bitcoin White Paper which are being infringed. In a courtroom, talk is cheap and Wright will have the burden of actually proving, on balance of probabilities, that he is Satoshi Nakamoto and that he owns the rights in the Bitcoin White Paper. 

Our guess is that what’s happening here is part of a long-term strategy for Wright and his financial backers to try to gradually establish enough judicially-enforced legitimacy over his claim to be Satoshi Nakamoto to claim ownership over the Bitcoin codebase itself and attempt to use lawfare to prevent people and businesses from running BTC, and force them to use his preferred version, BSV. 

There is a chance Wright does own these rights, though we think that chance is a small one (a judicial fact-finder will be in a better position to determine this). We don’t know, we weren’t there when the Bitcoin White Paper was written, and if we had been, there’s a good possibility we’d be sipping mojitos in Tahiti right now instead of practicing law. What we do know is that this is simply the latest in a series of opportunistic lawsuits commenced by Wright over the years designed to force the world to acknowledge his claim to the identity and legacy of Satoshi Nakamoto, something which could be easily proved – by signing a message with one of Satoshi’s private keys – yet has not been done.

The only way this is going to stop is for someone in the industry to assume the risk, tell Wright “we’ll see you in court,” and beat him at trial or force his hand to reveal the proof of his identity that, so far, has failed to materialize since 2016.


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