The Australian computer scientist Craig Wright, who once claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, is continuing his effort to obtain hundreds of digital currency and blockchain patents.
Why: For profit. How: By some 400 patent applications on Bitcoin and blockchain-related technology. A recent Reuters report (March 2, 2017) referred to the onslaught as an unprecedented “land grab for intellectual property”.
It is also a desecration of the gift Bitcoin’s creator Satoshi Nakamoto gave to average people – economic autonomy. It is a slap at Satoshi and at his open-source masterpiece which was intended to be a weapon of independence against the very institutions to which Wright kowtows. The insult is worsened by Wright’s claim to be Satoshi.
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Timeline of the Satoshi Claim
On December 8, 2015, a Wired article entitled “Bitcoin’s Creator Satoshi Nakamoto Is Probably This Unknown Australian Genius” declared, “Either Wright invented Bitcoin, or he’s a brilliant hoaxer who very badly wants us to believe he did”. Wired based its assumption of Satoshi-hood on “a collection of clues” and on documents leaked by an “anonymous source close to Wright”. The publication later switched to the “hoaxer” explanation because of severe problems with Wright’s story. The Bitcoin community concurred.
On May 2, 2016, Wright proclaimed himself to be Satoshi on his personal blog and to a non-crypto trio of media: the BBC, the Economist, and GQ. The technical evidence he produced was disputed by leading cryptographers and developers, however, because it did not constitute verification of his identity. Nevertheless, some community leaders accepted Wright’s claim, notably Jon Matonis, one of the Bitcoin Foundation’s founding directors and Gavin Andresen, Bitcoin’s former `chief scientist´ (according to Bitcoin Foundation). Wright secured a crumbling toehold of credibility as Satoshi.
The general community remained skeptical. So, on May 4, Wright’s blog promised proof. He would move bitcoin from one of the early blocks to which only Satoshi had the key. Instead, the next day, Wright deleted all posts from his blog, leaving only a notice that said, “I’m Sorry”. (The notice was subsequently deleted but was reprinted in full by Ars Technica.) Wright reneged on publishing “the proof of access to the earliest keys” because he lacked “the courage” to withstand further attacks on his “qualifications and character”.
In a BBC interview, Wright proclaimed: “I don’t work and invent and write papers and code by coming in front of TVs. I don’t want money, I don’t want fame, I don’t want adoration, I just want to be left alone”.
His delicacy and purported indifference to money did not prevent the Satoshi wannabe from making headlines a month later. Jamie Redman’s article entitled “The Impostor Emerges: Craig Wright Files 50+ Blockchain Patents” (June 20, 2016), explained: “Sources coming from EITC Holdings Ltd., which employs two of Wright’s former associates, say Wright is still filing blockchain patent applications through Britain’s Intellectual Property Office”. Successful patents could be worth billions and ‘being Satoshi’ could enhance Wright’s prospect of success.
The identity grab will not succeed in the crypto-community. But, if it is accepted by a less savvy mainstream, then being Satoshi could add weight to Wright’s patent applications. Certainly, Reuters is providing good PR. After waxing on “Wright’s expertise” that makes him “a potentially formidable force in shaping the future of Bitcoin and blockchain”, Reuters stated, “It remains unclear whether he is Satoshi Nakamoto or not”. The agnosticism coupled with praise leaves the door wide open.
It may be time for more exposés…and of the loud variety.
The Persistent Spectre of Patents
Patent applications that name Bitcoin and/or blockchain are nothing new. In his article entitled “Things Bitcoin Companies Try To Patent” (January 15, 2017) Justin Connell provided context, “Because Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin white paper and disappeared shortly after releasing the early versions of the digital currency, Bitcoin is part of the public domain. Only novel additions, variations, and use-cases might be patented around the technology”. Only improvements or original applications should be legally eligible for a patent.
Connell may be technically correct although some intellectual property experts disagree. Whichever camp is correct, a patent race is on. Wright is competing with “other players”, including some 70 banks, and it is difficult to believe that anyone will easily accept defeat. It is also difficult to believe that a patent office in one nation or another won’t eventually succumb to pressure from powerful elites who want to monopolize as much of Bitcoin as possible. The moment an advantage is secured, patent treaties will be invoked to globalize it.
The Reuters report on Wright was announced under the headline “Bitcoin’s ‘creator’ races to patent technology with gambling tycoon”. The tycoon is Calvin Ayre – a Canadian online gambling entrepreneur who is a fugitive from American law enforcement. Ayre is almost certainly funding Wright with the expectation of sharing patent profits but, since both men operate as secretly as possible, details are scarce.
But their campaign is unprecedented. For one thing, it envisions up to 400 patent applications, with over 70 currently being processed. As Reuters noted, this total “compares with 63 blockchain-related patents filed globally last year, and 27 so far this year by multinationals from credit card companies to chipmakers…. The patents range from the storage of medical documents to WiFi security, and reflect Wright’s deep knowledge of how Bitcoin and blockchain work”. To date, patents have been filed through EITC Holdings – a company based in Antigua where Ayre resides.
The crusade is unprecedented in another respect. Although the basics of Bitcoin do not seem patentable, Reuters commented, “The range of patent applications lodged by Wright and colleagues is wide. Five, registered on Dec. 14, were made…with the bland description ‘computer-implemented method and system’….One, registered on Dec. 28, was described as ‘Determining a common secret for two blockchain nodes for the secure exchange of information’ – apparently a way to use the blockchain to exchange encrypted data. Other applications…relate to…a blockchain-based operating system for simple electronic devices”.
This may be a well-funded ‘Hail Mary’ move. Or, it may be a calculated gamble by men who know how to game the system and how to maximize the chance of winning. First, Wright becomes Satoshi to the media and the courts. Then, he relies on the ignorance of the audience. Finally, he rides the growing rush of Bitcoin developers to partner with government to offer Bitcoin as a servant of the state.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether it is possible to tame the wild Bitcoin any more than it is possible to silence free speech. A great deal of damage can be done.
There is good news. No patent seems to be in place yet, and a patent of substance might be impossible to effectively enforce. The attempt to do so could make other cryptocurrencies surge forward. For example, Zcash’s new algorithm was publicized last month in Banking Technology which said it “offers more privacy and equality than the famous Bitcoin”. We live in a world of alternatives.
There is also troubling news. Bitcoin is drifting far from its roots as a peaceful revolution through which individuals could taste real freedom in their lifetimes. The blockchain is an amazingly efficient engine, but it also has a soul – that of Satoshi. He used it to free individuals from the corruption and oppression of authority, and he did so without bloodshed. Satoshi offered individuals the dignity of independence through creativity and cooperation. He believed so deeply in the potential of common people that he created a door to a different future and then walked away, leaving it wide open to all.
The crypto-anarchist Sterlin Luxan wrote: “Bitcoin is the catalyst for peaceful anarchy and freedom. It was built as a reaction against corrupt governments and financial institutions. It was not solely created for the sake of improving financial technology. But some people adulterate this truth. In reality, Bitcoin was meant to function as a monetary weapon, as a cryptocurrency poised to undermine authority. Now it is whitewashed. It is seen as a polite and unassuming technology in order to appease politicians, banksters, and soccer moms. Its purpose is sometimes concealed in order to make the tech palatable to the unwashed masses and power elite. However, no one should forget or deny why the protocol was written”.
It may also be time for a “Free Satoshi” movement that argues passionately for preserving his anti-authoritarian spirit.
What do you think about Craig Wright acquiring Bitcoin and blockchain patents? Let us know in the comments below.
Images via Pixabay and GQ
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