Craig Wright's UK Case Against 16 Bitcoin Developers to Go to Full Trial

The trial is expected in early 2024 following a successful appeal.

AccessTimeIconFeb 3, 2023 at 1:45 p.m. UTC
Updated Jun 22, 2023 at 5:07 p.m. UTC
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The U.K. Court of Appeal ruled that a claim by Craig Wright's Tulip Trading against 16 Bitcoin developers should go to trial in London. The claim was originally dismissed in March 2022.

The claim alleges that the developers owe "fiduciary duties" and "duties in tort" to re-write or amend protocol code in order to give Wright access to 111,000 bitcoin (BTC) from two wallets whose private keys were allegedly stolen and subsequently erased in a hack. One of the wallets Wright claims to own, the 1Feex wallet, holds nearly 80,000 BTC associated with the hack of Mt. Gox – the Tokyo-based bitcoin exchange that went bankrupt after a series of hacks between 2011 and 2014. His ownership of those coins is, as such, contested.

The case was first heard in the England and Wales High Court last year by Mrs. Justice Falk, who concluded that Tulip had not “established a serious issue to be tried.” Wright subsequently appealed Falk’s judgment and a 2-day hearing was held at the end of 2022 in the Court of Appeal.

In its judgment, the Court of Appeals said the claim presents a "serious issue to be tried" and cited four grounds for the appeal to succeed, including that the relevant area of law is developing, uncertain and complex and thus warrants a trial.

In fiduciary-beneficiary relationships, fiduciaries are legally required to act in the best interests of beneficiaries (e.g attorney-client relationships). Tortious duties require a relationship where the service provider is expected to reasonably protect an individual from some form of harm, failing which, the individual may be entitled to monetary compensation (e.g. doctor-patient relationships).

Wright is essentially asking the court to treat developer-user relationships the same way it treats attorney-client and doctor-patient relationships.

Bitcoin Core developers work on the key software underpinning Bitcoin, focusing their efforts on a variety of improvements (privacy, security, user experience, etc.) at the base layer of Bitcoin. They are often volunteers who may sometimes accept funding grants or donations in support of their work.

Wright contends that Bitcoin developers can easily change the protocol's code in order to return the keys to those funds to him.

Last year, Wright’s other company, nChain, developed a blacklist manager for the Bitcoin SV network (BSV). The tool allows users to freeze and confiscate BSV coins as long as they provide legal documents proving rightful ownership. Many see this as an affront to the Bitcoin ethos of decentralization and censorship resistance.

In 2021, the London High Court gave Craig Wright's lawyers permission to serve papers to the 16 developers, even if they don't reside in the U.K. The developers include Cory Fields, Peter Todd, Roger Ver, Pieter Wuille and others who have worked on the Bitcoin network.

A legal representative for 14 of the developers said the Court of Appeal felt inclined to send the case to trial because the developers were all outside the jurisdiction of the court, City AM reported. A full trial is expected next year.

Craig Wright is a computer scientist who claims to be Bitcoin's pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. In October, Judge Helen Engebrigtsen held in a court case in Norway, involving a claim by Wright that someone named Hodlonaut defamed him, that Hodlonaut “had sufficient factual grounds to claim that Wright had lied and cheated in his attempt to prove that he is Satoshi Nakamoto.”

UPDATE (Feb. 3, 14:10 UTC): Changes attribution to court ruling, adds partial reason for appeal's success in second paragraph.

UPDATE (Feb. 3, 18:48 UTC): Adds information about court documents; adds explanation about the role of Bitcoin developers; adds information about BSV and its blacklist manager technology.

CLARIFICATION (Feb. 3, 21:03 UTC): In the final paragraph, clarifies what the judge in the Norwegian case said.


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Oliver Knight

Oliver Knight is a CoinDesk reporter based between London and Lisbon. He does not own any crypto.

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