Welcome to the CoinDesk Weekly Review 13th December 2013 – a regular look at the hottest, most controversial and thought-provoking events in the world of digital currency through the eyes of skepticism and wonder. Your host … John Law.
You've got to love Internet rumours. A bit of a Twitter-storm kicked off earlier this week, when the word went out that JP Morgan had tried to patent bitcoin.
Calmer heads prevailed: JP Morgan hadn't tried to patent bitcoin. It had re-presented an old patent from 1999 about an online payment system with electronic wallets, but one that bore little resemblance to cryptocurrencies as we know them.
It's a bank, after all, so why would it want to remove complexity and centralised control, two of the more lucrative aspects of the business?
But could someone spike bitcoin through patents? After all, software patents now have a long history of being used to extract money from companies and shut down competition.
Some estimates say that one in four civil lawsuits in America are patent-driven, and the big-dogs of Google, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft spend billions at the game.
It's vanishingly unlikely, for at least three reasons. The one that's most obvious is prior art, where a new patent can only be granted – in theory – if the invention embedded in it hasn't been published before. As bitcoin is thoroughly published and open, then it can't be patented.
It's possible, indeed probable, that there are software patents which could plausibly be used to slap claims on parts of the Bitcoin protocol – the real evil of such patents is that they're often written so vaguely it takes a court full of rich lawyers a long time to find out whether they apply in particular cases or not. But the whole thing? Nah.
If someone managed to get a patent on a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency, which remains a possibility as the US patent office is known for not being too fussy about what it grants, that wouldn't do much harm either.
For a patent to be infringed, all of its aspects have to be infringed. You can copy a process or invention as much as you like, as long as you differ in just one point of the patented details.
Finally, and most importantly, there's no money in it. Nobody owns bitcoin, so there's nobody to sue. People and companies using bitcoin might be vulnerable – there are patent trolls who cause a lot of problems that way.
For example, suing people who just happen to use Wi-Fi because the trolls have bought a patent that might be applicable to something in Wi-Fi, but there are moves afoot in the US to make that sort of thing much less attractive.
Decentralised, distributed, open-source systems are in fact terribly difficult to control, technically and legally, which is why anyone with half a brain (and the morals of a pirate, natch) can still download any movie they like through bittorrent even though there's been more than a decade of intensive government and industry fist-shaking at those darn kids.
So don't fear the bankers. They can only mess up things they control.
Coinbase coins it
Rather more legitimate excitement accompanied Coinbase's $25 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz and friends, which took the media's attention away from the bubbling, crashing valuation cycle and the good-vs-evil story of malware and bitcoin thievery. Which is very pleasing.
As John Law keeps banging on, the real value of bitcoin isn't as some sort of sketchy quick-fire currency speculation vehicle, but as a basic way to securely move valuable digital anythings around the place without having someone take a cut in the middle.
If he had $25 million to invest in bitcoin, it'd go into tools like wallets and merchant software – Coinbase's shtick – and not into the currency itself.
Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz has rather more to say on this, pointing out that key Internet protocols like HTTP (for the web) and SMTP (for email) didn't take off until someone had created a decent web browser or mail client.
That's an argument which clearly resonates with his company, as Marc Andreessen of that ilk made his millions through the Netscape Navigator web browser.
You may not remember Netscape Navigator, if you're a spring chicken. It was one of the first mass-market web browsers and made all the running in the mid-to-late 90s.
At one point, nine out of ten web browsers on the planet were Netscape Navigator, and Netscape the company was one of the first dot-com headline success stories.
It all went downhill after Microsoft started to give away Internet Explorer with Windows – at that point, people still paid for browser software, shockingly – and intensively invested in improving IE.
Netscape made a few bad decisions, wrote a lot of bad software, and lost market share like nobody's business. The company went through some painful retrenchments, eventually spawned Firefox and got bought by AOL.
Will Coinbase follow a similar trajectory? After all, bitcoin is open, just like the Web is open, and people can switch wallets and merchant services at will, just like they could hop from Netscape Navigator to Internet Explorer.
There are two ways to win – be first, or be best. Netscape was one, but not the other. Coinbase is certainly the most prominent and successful of the first-generation bitcoin companies, like Netscape and the Web. Will it be best?
Microsoft no longer dominates as the way the world accesses the Internet: Apple and Google have stronger claims.
Apple won't allow bitcoin software on its iOS mobile platform and recently threw Coinbase's app out of its store, although it's unwilling to say why – but whatever the reason, it won't be because it's going to put its own bitcoin software up.
Microsoft was eventually found guilty of anti-trust behaviour through its Internet Explorer antics, after all. And in any case, even Apple can't control access to Web services.
That's one hurdle no longer in play. The other, bad software and bad planning, is entirely up to Coinbase, and if it knows how to make strategy and superior software it's going to be a good bet.
The strategy – ease of use, paring costs to the bone, swiftness, active attention to regulation – seems good enough, so let's hope it gets the implementation right.
It can always ask Marc about how to avoid bad code.
The doge is out of the bag
John Law is not quite sure he can explain the Doge Internet meme, except that it's a mis-spelling of dog and appears to be a canine version of LOLCats.
It revolves around stunted phrases like Wow. So picture. Much words, Many lols. It probably makes sense if you are under 25 and heroically stoned, much like dubstep.
It's been around for about a year, and the chances are good that your life has been in no way diminished by not making its acquaintance until now.
What makes this ephemeral event of interest to CoinDesk readers is that Doge has grown – budded, mutated, squeezed out – its own cryptocurrency, dogecoin.
Why dogecoin? That's even more of a mystery. Like the true nature of the photon or the continued existence of BBC 3, some things have to be accepted as existing beyond the reach of mere human intellect.
Yet here it is. John Law has been mining – sorry, digging – dogecoin for a few days, and it seems to all be there. People are using to to buy things off each other. There are users. Forums. Digging pools. It doesn't seem to have any particular cash value, but that it has some value is undeniable.
It's not alone. There currently are over sixty cryptocurrencies listed on the Cryptsy trading platform: dogecoin isn't part of that group, and nobody seems to have created, or have any way of creating, a definitive list of everything running on Bitcoin protocols.
If you think the powers that be are having problems defining exactly what bitcoin is, think of the fun they'll have trying to classify all of the not-so-serious, experimental, closed or just plain daft variants that already exist.
Some, like BBQcoin, were started for fun and accidentally became valuable: that has a market capitalisation of roughly $4 million, by repute.
This is the true joke, and it's a good one. If you doubt for a second that the genie is out of the bottle, spend a few minutes poking around the dogecoins, quarkcoins and protoshares of the altcoin world.
Not only is the bitcoin system properly independent of any central control, all such systems are so free of restraint that you or I or a bunch of stoners can create a new one for the price of a few hours with a computer and an Internet connection.
It's not that the coins themselves can be created and traded without the usual requirement of some state machinery behind them, it's that the entire system now belongs to the individual. It's as uncontrollable as reading or writing.
So funnies. Wow. Much changing!
John Law is an 18th century Scottish entrepreneur, financial engineer and gambler. Having reformed the French economy, invented paper currency, state banks, the Mississippi Bubble and other ideas essential to modern economics, he took three hundred years off in a small cottage outside Bude. He has returned to write for CoinDesk on the foibles of digital currency.
Feature image: Patent stamp via Shutterstock