Bitcoin file format possibly copyrightable according to new UK Court of Appeal Decision

7 minute read
23 August 2023

Dr. Craig Wright – the Australian businessman who claims to be the creator of the Bitcoin system and the author of the Bitcoin source code and "White Paper" – successfully appealed a UK High Court decision that denied his request to serve a copyright infringement claim on defendants outside of the UK.

In order to serve extra-jurisdictional defendants, Dr. Wright needed to show that his copyright infringement claim raised a serious issue to be tried. The High Court determined that Dr. Wright's claim to ownership of the copyright in the Bitcoin File Format did not meet this test. The UK Court of Appeal disagreed, overruled the High Court decision, and granted Dr. Wright's request to serve extra-jurisdictional defendants with his copyright claim.

Denied in the Court of First Instance

High Court judge, Justice Mellor, agreed with Dr. Wright on three key points. First, Justice Mellor agreed that Dr. Wright "expended substantial skill and judgement in creating the Bitcoin File Format, such that the originality/intellectual creativity requirement [was] met."[1] Further, the Justice agreed that Dr. Wright "devised and created the Bitcoin File Format in the course of writing the code for the Bitcoin System."[2] Last, Justice Mellor agreed that two works could be created at the same time.[3]

However, Justice Mellor disagreed with Dr. Wright on the key issue of fixation. The Court held that Dr. Wright erred in his assumption that the fixation requirement was automatically met when the Bitcoin program ran. Since the Bitcoin File Format was not "recorded, in writing or otherwise," which is a key component to establishing fixation, the Bitcoin File Format was not fixed. Therefore, Dr. Wright had no real prospect of establishing copyright in the File Format. The Justice then listed further related reasons for the denial:

  1. Dr. Wright failed to identify the alleged copyrighted "work" relating to the Bitcoin File Format.
  2. There was insufficient evidence to show that the "Bitcoin File Format [was] set out in any part of the software or early blocks written to the Bitcoin Blockchain, as opposed to the Bitcoin Software simply reading and writing files in that format."[4] In other words, for fixation to occur, the content needs to indicate the structure of the Bitcoin File Format.

Justice Mellor held that Dr. Wright failed to establish a serious issue to be tried. As a result, Dr. Wright's request to serve the extra-jurisdictional defendants on that aspect of the claim was denied.

Successful appeal

The UK Court of Appeal overturned Justice Mellor's decision. The three-judge panel unanimously held that Justice Mellor was wrong to hold that Dr. Wright had no real prospect of successfully establishing the Bitcoin File Format's fixation.[5]

Writing for the Court, Lord Justice Arnold noted that:

  1. Justice Mellor confused work and fixation when discussing the Bitcoin File Format. Dr. Wright identified the work as the File Format, however, the question of whether the File Format was fixed merits a trial.[6]
  2. The content does not need to indicate the structure of the Bitcoin File Format. For clarity, "[a]ll that is required is that the structure be completely and unambiguously recorded."[7]
  3. Justice Mellor applied the wrong test for fixation. Had the correct [8] test been used, Justice Mellor would have asked whether Dr. Wright's claimed fixation made the Bitcoin File Format identifiable with sufficient precision and objectivity.[9]
  4. The rationale for the fixation requirement – to serve as evidence of the existence of the work and to delimit the scope of protection – went unconsidered.[10]

Potential impact

Although the Court of Appeal only ruled that Dr. Wright has a real prospect of successfully establishing that the Bitcoin File Format's fixation requirement was satisfied, the decision brings hesitation and excitement to the industry.

As this case moves forward, it will address a number of unknowns, including whether Dr. Wright is actually who he claims to be and whether he can claim ownership of the copyright in the Bitcoin File Format.

Apart from the drama surrounding Bitcoin's mysterious creation, the issue of whether copyright exists in works such as file formats is an interesting one that will have implications that affect creators and users alike.


[1]Wright & Ors v BTC Core & Ors [2023] EWHC 222 (Ch), at para. 50.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Supra note 1, at para. 58.
[5] Wright & Ors v BTC Core & Ors (Rev1) [2023] EWCA Civ 868.
[6] Ibid at para. 68.
[7] Ibid at para. 69.
[8] C-310/17 Levola Hengelo BV v Smilde Foods BV [EU: C: 2018: 899].
[9] Supra note 5, at para. 72.
[10] Ibid at para. 73.

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