Bitcoin

Craig Wright says anyone else claiming to be Satoshi Nakamoto is a criminal

The self-proclaimed Bitcoin creator seeks to take the Bitcoin name away from the BTC cryptocurrency

Craig Wright said this week that anyone else saying they are Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto is a criminal. He also intends to reclaim the Bitcoin name from the version that currently bears the BTC symbol and bestow it on his own Bitcoin Satoshi Version—or Bitcoin SV—which he claims is the “real” Bitcoin.

Both of those assertions came in the wake of news on Tuesday, May 21, that the U.S. Copyright Office had granted Wright a copyright registration for Nakamoto’s Bitcoin white paper and original Bitcoin code. In fact, the Copyright Office made clear in a press release that evening, all the agency did was say that Wright said he was Nakamoto.

“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 release said. “The Copyright Office does not investigate the truth of any statement made.”

From the Copyright Office’s press release

As part of the examination process, the Copyright Office, “took note of the well-known pseudonym ‘Satoshi Nakamoto,’ and asked the applicant to confirm that Craig Steven Wright was the author and claimant of the works being registered. Mr. Wright made that confirmation.” It added, “[i]n a case in which a work is registered under a pseudonym, the Copyright Office does not investigate whether there is a provable connection between the claimant and the pseudonymous author.”

The release noted that many people can register the same copyright at the same time. Determining the truth of a claim is the job of the federal courts, it said, adding, “[s]omeone who intentionally includes false information in an application may be subject to criminal penalties.”

The crime of claiming to be Satoshi Nakamoto

Which is where Wright’s threat comes in. Over the course of this week, a series of stories on CoinGeek, owned by Calvin Ayre, Wright’s partner in Bitcoin SV, laid out Wright’s goals for the copyright he has claimed.

His rather grandiose criminal claim was made in a May 23 CoinGeek story which read: “‘I am Satoshi Nakamoto,’ he declares. ‘I created Bitcoin. If you try and falsely claim that you did, you are committing a criminal offence and we will ensure you are charged with a crime.’”

In that release, he cited Title 17 Section 506(e) of the U.S. Copyright Act, which says: “Any person who knowingly makes a false representation of a material fact in the application for copyright registration provided for by section 409, or in any written statement filed in connection with the application, shall be fined not more than $2,500.”

In his statement, Wright left out that last part, about the maximum penalty being a $2,500 fine.

He did follow the foreshortened description of the legal penalty with, “any other would-be claimants to the Bitcoin white paper and early code should be forewarned before they submit false copyright claims.”

Wright also claimed that by swearing under oath that he is Nakamoto, he would face perjury charges if lying. “If this was not real, it means I would face 20 years. If a single person could discredit me, I get an orange suit.”

Again, that threat appears to be rather overdone. According to Title 18 U.S. Code § 1621, the maximum penalty for perjury is five years in prison.

Of course, there is another possibility. Wright has already filed at least two libel suits, against Bitcoin Cash’s Roger Ver and “What Bitcoin Did” podcaster Peter McCormack. [Crypto community anger at the latter got Bitcoin SV booted off the Binance and Kraken exchanges.]

While the U.S. does not have a criminal libel statute, 24 U.S. states do according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The maximum penalty is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, although most have lesser sentences. So, be careful where you call him a liar.

Could Craig Wright own the Bitcoin name?

What Wright intends to do with his copyright is pull the “Bitcoin” name off of the coin that currently carries it and the symbol BTC, according to Bloomberg.

“A representative for Wright has said he will seek to stop the cryptocurrency community from referring to the original token as Bitcoin because it doesn’t currently possess the attributes described in the research paper,” that report said, adding that Wright claims his Bitcoin SV is the “real” Bitcoin.

It’s worth noting that a May 21 press release by Calvin Ayre said, “[i]n the future, Wright intends to assign the copyright registrations to Bitcoin Association to hold for the benefit of the Bitcoin ecosystem.”

When the Bitcoin Association changed its name from the bComm Association on February 20, the announcement said, “[t]he Bitcoin Association support Bitcoin SV (BSV) as rebirth of the original Bitcoin,” and then quoted President Jimmy Nguyen as saying, “[t]he name Bitcoin Association better captures this broader mission.”

So, it’s pretty likely he’s going to try to get back the Bitcoin name. Whether he can do it is another story.

In looking at the question of what control Wright’s copyright—assuming it is valid—gives him, it’s important to note that an author’s copyright protection begins when the work is created, said John Delaney, a licensing, intellectual property, and technology attorney with Perkins Coie. This applies to software code as much as it does to novels or movies.

“The real benefit of copyright registration is you can’t file a lawsuit unless you registered,” Delaney said. But, he added, you have to register within five years of creation to be able to sue for damages from infringement. As the Nakamoto whitepaper and Bitcoin code were created in 2009, that time has passed.

Control is another thing entirely, said Delaney. One of the rights granted to copyright owners is “the right to control the creation of derivative works,” he said. “If you create a novel, you have a copyright in that novel, whether you register it or not with the Copyright Office. If I create a sequel to your novel, I’m an infringer unless I go to you and get permission to do so. And if I get permission to do so, unless our contract provides otherwise, I own the copyright in the new material I’ve created. But you’ll continue to own the copyright in the underlying material, to the extent that it’s incorporated … in my derivative work.”

The May 21 CoinGeek release refers to Wright having been “granted U.S. copyright registrations for … most of the original Bitcoin code (version 0.1).”

Craig Wright doing math on a glass board while wearing a dinner jacket because that's how it's always done.
Craig Wright doing math on a glass board while wearing a dinner jacket because that’s how it’s always done.

Version 0.1 of the Bitcoin Core code was released on Jan. 3, 2009, as open-source material under an MIT License, according to GitHub.

The MIT License allows anyone, “the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so.”

So, Wright should be unable to assert any control on other Bitcoin projects based on a copyright of the original source code.

That doesn’t mean he won’t try. For one thing, he’s rich, and rich people can win lawsuits simply by being able to afford the cost of litigation.

For another, it’s pretty clear from the language of the CoinGeek releases that, assuming he’s telling the truth, Wright is motivated by more than just economics. He is (or claims to be) a true believer.

Listen to the May 22 CoinGeek story: “What pushed Wright to lift the Satoshi Nakamoto veil for good and now take efforts to defend his original vision for Bitcoin? It was a combination of events. First, there was the bastardization of BTC introduced by SegWit, changing Bitcoin into what BTC is today … Wright then chose to support Bitcoin Cash (BCH) which forked away from BTC in August 2017, with the supposed mission to restore Bitcoin’s original vision. However … it became clear in 2018 to Dr. Wright that BCH development groups were also deviating from the original Bitcoin protocol.

“Having seen his creation bastardized not once but twice, Dr. Wright has acted to preserve his original Satoshi Vision for Bitcoin,” it continued. Wright is then quoted as having said that he acted, “so that I can confirm my authorship and copyright ownership, and start teaching people the true meaning of what Bitcoin is about and stop people twisting the narrative.”

Pulling the “SV” off of Bitcoin SV would be a mighty satisfying way to do that.

Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus senior editor, is a New York-based journalist who has spent much of the last 15 years covering the employee engagement and recognition business. Before that he covered the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and wrote about politics in New York City. Disclosure: Jakobson owns no cryptocurrencies.