The cryptocurrency world is in the middle of a copyright controversy. As of right now, there are dueling copyright registrations for the original Bitcoin and whitepaper as multiple people attempt to lay claim to be the paper’s pseudonymous author Satoshi Nakamoto.
However, both of these registrations are pretty much meaningless for their intended purpose. Neither registration proves that one person or the other is the author of the Bitcoin whitepaper and neither provide any clues to the identity of Satoshi.
Instead, what they do is showcase a fundamental weakness in the copyright registration system and a very real danger of releasing work anonymously or pseudonymously.
Still, the story is well worth exploring, not just because the future of Bitcoin possibly hangs into balance, but because it’s an interesting look into our copyright registration system and the value of such registrations.
The Battle Over Bitcoin
In 2008, a whitepaper entitled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System was published under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. The identity of the person (or people) behind the moniker has been a subject of great debate, with multiple competing theories ranging from Satoshi being a group of developers to the person behind it being dead.
However, one of the most vocal in that debate has been Craig Wright, who has laid claim that he is Satoshi. Though he has not provided evidence to support that claim, he has threatened those that dispute him with libel lawsuits.
To put it mildly, the cryptocurrency community has been skeptical of Wright’s claims. Using the hashtag #faketoshi the community has been sharing links, memes and Tweets mocking Wright.
Part of the issue is that Wright’s claim to the name Satoshi Nakamoto isn’t just about claiming Bitcoin, but about replacing it. According to Wright, Bitcoin has lost its way and is now primarily a system used by criminals. As such, he is asking users to switch to a cryptocurrency he created, Bitcoin SV (Satoshi Vision). Bitcoin SV is a fork of Bitcoin Cash, itself a fork of Bitcoin, but one that Wright argues better follows the original vision for the platform.
As part of his bid to “prove” that he is Satoshi, Wright filed two copyright registrations, one for the original whitepaper and another for the original Bitcoin. Initially, it seemed to work with many sites claiming that the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO)had confirmed that he was Satoshi. However, cooler heads quickly prevailed with most people pointing out that the USCO doesn’t verify claims.
The USCO itself released a statement noting that the statements on a copyright registration are certified by the filer alone and that the office does not make any efforts to investigate their veracity.
This point was driven home further when a second person, this one named Wei Liu, also filed a registration for the original whitepaper. The USCO granted that registration even though it was a complete duplicate of Wright’s. According to Liu, that was precisely the point, to prove that “Anyone can register a copyright. Everyone can be Satoshi Nakamoto.”
The end result is that there are two registrations for the original Bitcoin whitepaper and neither really do much to prove who Satoshi is. We’re no closer to solving that mystery than we were before the registrations were filed.
The Registration Process
For most works, the process of registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office is fairly straightforward.
It’s $35 for a single application (one author, one work) or $55 for more complicated ones and the whole thing can be done online in a few minutes. Though it appears that Wright spent the $800 for special handling, that simply expedites the registration process (rather than requiring the more than nine months it can take now).
Still, it’s somewhat misleading to say that it’s “just a form” or that the USCO doesn’t check registrations. They absolutely do and reject registrations regularly. However, the things that they look for in the registration are issues such as “Can the work be protected by copyright?”, “Is the registration complete?” and “Was there an error in the application”.
In short, as long as the work qualifies for copyright protection (human author, minimum level of creativity, fixed into a tangible medium of expression, etc.) and the registration is complete and filled out correctly, it will likely be accepted.
The USCO does not check the veracity of the claims of the registration. Instead, it is up to the filer to ensure that the claims in the registration are accurate as knowingly falsifying a copyright registration can result in it being invalidated and even criminal penalties.
As a result of this, as official as the copyright registration certificate looks, it doesn’t validate Wright’s claims in any way. The USCO did not and could not investigate whether Wright is Satoshi. It’s outside the scope of what it does.
But, if it’s such poor proof of identity, why did he do it at all? The answer likely lies in the other benefits of registration.
The Actual Benefits of Registering a Copyright
Reminder: I am not a lawyer and nothing in this post is intended to serve as legal advice. Please see links included for additional information and sources.
Filing a copyright registration with the USCO comes with a series of four major benefits, three of which might be useful to someone in Wright’s position.
- Registration (or refusal of registration) is required before any copyright infringement lawsuit can be filed.
- Timely registration (within three months of publication or before the infringement) opens the doors to possible statutory damages, attorneys fees and costs in a copyright infringement lawsuit.
- Establishes prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and facts stated in the certificate if the registration is made within five years of publication.
- Permits the copyright owner to have the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol help prevent the importation of infringing copies.
The first two are related and deal with Wright’s theoretical ability to sue and collect damages for copyright infringement of the whitepaper or the code. The third, however, is likely more relevant, at least in Wright’s mind.
The works were published online in 2008. It would seem that the clock for them to serve as prima facie evidence has long expired. However, though Wright listed the Bitcoin code as being published in early 2009, he didn’t include a publication date in his registration of the Bitcoin whitepaper, meaning he registered it as an unpubilshed work. This means the clock hasn’t started on this benefit.
In short, this registration may count as prima facie evidence that Wright is Satoshi as it is information included in the certificate. This may be useful either in the lawsuit he’s facing from his former business partner or the potential libel lawsuits.
It’s worth noting that Wei Liu’s registration lists a date of publication, meaning it missed the window to be considered prima facie evidence. Though it may still be considered as evidence, the court has the discretion on how much weight it is given.
Prima facie evidence establishes a fact or a presumption of a fact but is not conclusive by itself. Not only can the evidence itself be rebutted, at least in sane courtrooms, but it is only one piece of evidence and by no means guarantees a court would determine him to be Satoshi.
In any judicial proceedings the certificate of a registration made before or within five years after first publication of the work shall constitute prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate. The evidentiary weight to be accorded the certificate of a registration made thereafter shall be within the discretion of the court.17 U.S. Code § 410(c)
I asked Devlin Hartline of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) about this and he said:
“Satoshi/Wright might enjoy a technical presumption that he’s the author, in that the alleged infringer has the burden of producing and persuading the court that he’s not, but the alleged infringer doesn’t necessarily need to show too much – it just needs to show that it’s more likely than not that it’s not true.”Devlin Hartline – CPIP
In short, while the registration would have a presumption of truth, it’s just one piece of evidence and can be refuted. It is by no means definitive and the likely weight it would be given would be relatively low since, as the USCO mentioned in their press release on the subject, the claim that Wright is Satoshi was wholly self-reported.
Still, this fits with his stated strategy of using the courts and law to prove his case.
This leads to a final question: Is it actually unpubilshed work? That’s difficult to say as the published/unpublished dichotomy often breaks down on the internet. The U.S. Copyright Office says that, “Online content is considered published if the copyright owner authorizes the end user to retain copies of the content or further distribute the content.”
By that standard, a whitepaper, which is meant for users to retain copies, would seem to be published. This is further bolstered by the fact the Bitcoin.org page where the whitepaper is hosted has social media sharing buttons, another sign, according to the Copyright Office, that a work is published.
Still, that’s nothing definitive and it would require a legal challenge to invalidate or alter the registration. That may prove difficult to do for a variety of reasons, legal costs being chief among them.
In the end, whether Wright is Satoshi or not, the goal of the registration is likely to make it more difficult for others to claim that he is not. However, this strategy has not had a major impact in the court of public opinion and is unlikely to have one in a court of law.
Personally, I have no thoughts on whether Wright is Satoshi. I have both limited knowledge and interest of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. That said, I do find it interesting that a person claiming to be the creator of Bitcoin is turning to the courts, rather than his own claimed creation, to prove his ownership.
When it comes to that legal strategy, it is clear these registrations are a part of it and an attempt to bolster his claim in the eyes of the law. However, as the U.S. Copyright Office made clear, the claim that he is Satoshi is wholly self-reported and, while it would be given a presumption of truth it would be just one piece of evidence and one that would not likely carry much weight due to the self-reported nature.
Otherwise, people could simply register any work they wanted and and lay claim to it. The USCO nor the courts are going to allow individuals to self-create heavily-weighted evidence.
As crazy as copyright law is, it usually isn’t that crazy.
In the end, Wright’s registrations are fairly meaningless. They’ve failed to sway the court of public opinion and will likely fail to sway a court of law (unless paired with other evidence). These registrations are, in truth, mostly just a verification that he claims to be Satoshi, something he has already done repeatedly in other venues.
More than a legal shift, these registrations are just a clear sign that Wright is sticking to his strategy of taking to the courts. This likely means more lawsuits but not a conclusive end to the mystery of Satoshi Nakamoto.
Special Thanks to Devlin Hartline for his help with this article and for combing through the weeds that are Section 410.