Yesterday, 26 April, marked a decade since the anonymous creator of bitcoin sent their alleged final message to developers to state that they were moving on from the fledgling digital currency project.
Operating under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, the person had published a white paper two years earlier outlining the first specification and proof of concept for bitcoin. As early demand for the asset and its blockchain network rose in 2011, they signed off using their personal cryptographic key, handed over the reins to a throng of core developers, and were never heard from again.
So it was to everyone’s surprise in 2016, when a Surrey-based computer scientist named Craig Wright outed himself to claim the Nakamoto moniker via interviews with an array of media publications. He said bitcoin had gotten off track, with Wright favouring its usage for micropayments rather than as an asset for investment portfolios. Now, the developer is embroiled in several legal challenges regarding his assertion — a move that could determine once and for all who is behind the world’s largest cryptocurrency.
Most recently on 21 April, Wright won the right to serve a copyright infringement lawsuit against the operator and publisher of bitcoin.org, the website that operates as one of the earliest code documentation platforms for the cryptocurrency’s creation.
Wright argues that as the main creator of bitcoin, copyright ownership over Nakamoto’s original white paper belongs to him. Cease and desist letters were sent far and wide by Wright’s lawyers to stop the paper being hosted on several platforms earlier this year, which prompted bitcoin proponents such as Square Crypto, Facebook crypto subsidiary Novi and others to upload the document in a show of solidarity.
Wright’s lawyers also published separate legal action in February against the developers of so-called Bitcoin Core — referring to bitcoin, bitcoin cash and other related cryptocurrencies — in an attempt to recover a £3.5bn trove of coins that he alleges were stolen from his personal computer last year.
Instead of targeting the hackers themselves, Wright wants the original developers to replace his stolen keys to the wallets where the bitcoin is stored with new ones. This would be a hefty feat, given the effort required to re-engineer private access to a blockchain (an as-yet untested process), while hackers continue to make hay with their ill-gotten gains in the meantime.
Wright’s claim to be Nakamoto is fiercely disputed. For a start, it is cryptographically possible to prove that Wright is Nakamoto by uploading proof of access to bitcoin’s earliest keys — something the Australian-born scientist has yet to do, despite his numerous legal battles.
Wright attempted this in 2016, but the digital signature he used was shown to have been copied from a publicly available Nakamoto signature in 2009. A promise for further proof was later negated, with Wright claiming in a now deleted post that he did “not have the courage” to show his evidence.
Additionally, the inventor of bitcoin is known to have access to large amounts of bitcoin that were minted during the cryptocurrency’s earliest days. In its IPO prospectus last month, Coinbase acknowledged the revelation of Nakamoto’s identity could destabilise the entire cryptocurrency market, with an estimated cache of 1.1 million bitcoins — around 5% of the market — at their disposal.
The publisher of bitcoin.org, who uses the pseudonym Cobra, has said they are prepared to give up their anonymity to defend “arguably the most important paper of the 21st century”.
“The consequences of many of bitcoin’s longest and most experienced developers being harassed and abused with legal problems cannot be understated,” Cobra wrote following the cease and desist letter.
“Developers with over a decade of built-up knowledge and experience are very hard to replace if they’re chased off. Dangerous bugs in Bitcoin Core are more likely to slip through, without experienced eyes on the code.
“It may become even harder to acquire new talent — contributing to an open source project is already thankless enough, who wants to deal with the risk of lawsuits on top of that?”
Cobra also has some major supporters for their cause. Copa, a non-profit organisation set up to challenge claims like Wright’s with members including Coinbase, Square, Kraken and MicroStrategy, initiated its own lawsuit against Wright’s case this month.
Litigation firm Ontier, which is representing Wright, has said he does not wish to restrict public access to the white paper.
However, it added that Wright believes the document should not be used by bitcoin’s core developers “to promote or otherwise misrepresent those assets as being bitcoin, given that they do not support or align with the vision for bitcoin as he set out in his white paper”.
Simon Cohen, a lawyer for Ontier and representing Wright, told Fintech Files the computer scientist will contest Copa’s claim “vigorously”.
“The good news is that one way or another the English courts will likely be required to verify Dr Wright’s authorship of the white paper, i.e. that he is Satoshi and this will have huge implications for the bitcoin communities as they stand,” Cohen added.
Corrections and Amplifications: A previous version of this article stated Craig Wright’s intention to retrieve access to his stolen bitcoin by the creation of new tokens, replacing the old ones. Craig Wright’s legal team clarified the term “token” refers to the keys to access the wallets, rather than the bitcoin tokens themselves.
To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Emily Nicolle