Zcash Pays Off Developer to Avoid Blockchain Split

After spending his time developing zcash's most popular wallet software, the developer threatened a hard fork in an effort to secure more funds.

AccessTimeIconJun 22, 2018 at 4:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 8:05 a.m. UTC

Despite the best efforts of zcash developers to keep the cryptocurrency's coming upgrade, Overwinter, as seamless as possible, the $800 million network was faced with a plot-twist this week.

Mere days before the update (a hard fork of the code) was set to execute – a developer decided to effectively threaten to split the network – if he wasn't paid in return that is. In a forum post published Tuesday, the sole maintainer of the Windows zcash wallet software, D. Jane Mercer, said he was going to cease development of the clients and release a zcash competitor "rebranded as another coin," if he didn't get further funding for his work.

See, last year Mercer was living off developer fees and donations for his work on the clients, but according to the post, the money had run out and he had been working for free for some time.

As such, Mercer decided to use the idea he might split the cryptocurrency as a way to air his frustrations.

On the forum, Mercer said:

"Altcoin drama rage quit hard fork, as it were. Pull a bitcoin cash, as it were."

And this message sent some in the zcash community into a frenzy.

That's because the Overwinter upgrade is scheduled to activate on June 25, but more importantly, that upgrade only adds limited features to zcash's protocol in an effort to prepare it for the Sapling hard fork upgrade, which looks to make zcash more scalable and private, in October.

If Mercer stopped development on the Windows wallet software, the most popular zcash wallet software, "tens to hundreds of thousands of users" would have been left without a workable wallet after the Sapling upgrade.

So, even though, blockchain splits have become, according to some, a healthy mechanism for asserting opposition of any decentralized cryptocurrency development, others do fear that these competing coins have the potential to split the community into fighting factions that confuse users.

"It might be as simple as pay the man," zcash engineer Ariel Gabizon said.

And payment came. The zcash community quickly stepped to financially support the developer after the threat – at least for a little while. The amount donated to Mercer by several anonymous zcash addresses is currently at 80 ZEC, around $15,360, according to current metrics.

"People have thrown enough in the kitty for a few months living expenses, so that's all well and good," Mercer told CoinDesk.

No more coexisting

Stepping back, though, it's notable in how the features packaged in the Overwinter hard fork made the theoretical hostage situation more dire.

One reason is that most developers support forks. While potentially disruptive to crypto economies, the guiding ethos is they allow a novel form of financial freedom. If users don't like what is going on with zcash, they have the ability to create another instance of the software.

This is different, proponents say, than traditional money systems. (Try as some might, you can't exactly fork the U.S. dollar and the elaborate banking system that enables it.)

In this way, Overwinter prepares the network for further upgrades and the potential for future hard forks, by including so-called "replay protection" to ensure that the network can bifurcate correctly in the case of a split.

However, the software still contains code called "auto-senescence," which causes nodes running older versions of the software to shutdown after a period of 16 weeks.

Designed to remove risks when undergoing network upgrades, Mercer had prepared for feature.

In the newest version of his wallet software, auto-senescence remained, so that the software would eventually expire. However, having removed it from the old version, if the users stayed on the old client, it would cause a chain split, Mercer continued.

"There is going to be a chain fork in one case, and then client death in another," he wrote.

While zcash developers were quick to counter that, saying that after Overwinter, older versions of the software will just be pushed into "safety mode," which causes those versions to deprecate at some point without causing a chain split, Mercer still had the community in a tight spot.

"Rock and a hard place you know," Mercer said, explaining the pressure he put on the community. "Overwinter is coming, and you got an Overwinter wallet but it's gonna deprecate sometime between Overwinter and Sapling, so how am I going to get to Sapling."

Mercer's orneriness was on full display at that time, but since he received the donations, he said, that he's dedicated to preparing the wallet software for the Sapling upgrade to come in about three months.

"Overwinter broke crap in a bunch of places which we're only figuring out now how to fix that with Windows, but it's like, bootin' hell knows what Sapling's going to be," the developer said, adding:

"Well now I'm funded by the community to find out and bring it forward."

A timely lesson

Above and beyond the donations Mercer received, though, he also got on the phone with the Zcash Foundation as well.

"I finally got one of the Zcash Foundation board members on the phone, and he managed to talk me back from the ledge from chain fork threats and fun things like that," he told CoinDesk, adding:

"I'm all calmed down, everything is happy now, I hate altcoin drama and it's the only time I have stirred it up deliberately in my life."

Still the episode has sparked an important conversation between Mercer and the Zcash Foundation – one that other cryptocurrency communities should be clued into as well – about how crucial independent developers are to these protocols and how to best compensate them for their work.

The Zcash Foundation, which receives donations from the so-called "founder's fee," a piece of code that contributes a percentage of zcash mining rewards to the founders fund, has a recurring grant program.

For independent developers like Mercer, though, relying on crypto and its volatile markets to continue contributing code can be crushing. Zcash in particular was hit hard this year, down from $876 per coin in January to $192 at the time of writing.

"The bear market really killed me," Mercer said. "You know ... when the blood spilling happened, I woke up and 25 percent of my money was gone."

And if the Zcash Foundation holds their reserves in ZEC, then the same rules would apply, whereby the grant program would be a little less healthy. As such, on a forum, executive director of the Zcash Foundation Josh Cincinnati said the organization is open to researching other funding methods as well.

Speaking broadly about the whole incident, it's has been a timely lesson on the importance of good developer relations, Mercer said, adding:

"Developers, developers, developers! There needs to be someone to talk to third-party wallet providers and exchanges, directly."

Crumpled paper image via Shutterstock

EDIT (11.45 UTC June 22, 2018): A former version of this article falsely stated that the feature "auto-senescence" is removed in the Overwinter upgrade. This has now been corrected.

EDIT 2 (12.15 UTC June 22, 2018): A former version of this article falsely stated that the Zcash Foundation was "hard coded" funds from the founders fee. This is incorrect. The Zcash Foundation is a recipient of the founders fee, but only by donation.

EDIT 3 (15.30 UTC June 22, 2018): A former version of this article falsely stated that zcash has a marketcap of $8 billion. It is worth $800 million according to current metrics.


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