To help this process along, he has instigated many a lawsuit. He wants the courts to recognise that he owns the intellectual property and architecture of bitcoin, and that versions of bitcoin other than his are fraudulent. His aim is to return the system to what he sees as its original purpose: as a form of scalable digital cash.
From his position as chief scientist at the blockchain company he founded, NChain, he has taken on Cobra, which plays a key role in maintaining BTC through its bitcoin.org website. And he’s now also suing crypto exchanges Coinbase and Kraken.
He, in turn, is being sued by the Cryptocurrency Open Patent Alliance, which is partly funded by Jack Dorsey’s Block, owner of Afterpay. He has instigated, or been targeted by, other lawsuits too – there are so many it’s easy to lose track.
But this might be only the start. He claims his patents mean that if central banks want to create their own digital currencies, they will have to pay him licence fees. That would put his network of companies in the middle of a digital payments web that he reckons will be worth up to $60 trillion once it gets going.
To say that there’s potentially a lot at stake would be an understatement. No wonder there’s little love lost between the players.
Waiting for him in the restaurant, I’m on the lookout for a classic tech guy: beard, T-shirt, jeans. Instead, a clean-shaven man in a pinstriped three-piece suit walks up to the table. “I like being different,” he says, when I remark on it.
I also notice the Union Jack pinned to his suit lapel. He tells me he’s applying for British citizenship, having left Sydney’s north shore four years ago because the red tape, particularly at the Tax Office, was weighing his company down.
We’re still going through these introductory pleasantries when we’re asked if we want wine. Wright opens the wine list, telling me he once trained as a sommelier.
That’s only the start of it. He tells me he has also trained as a chef, electrician and carpenter, and he has two PhDs – with another in the works – plus a sheaf of postgraduate qualifications in everything from law to computing to art appreciation.
All of these are displayed, in a kind of virtual trophy wall, on his personal website. To answer critics or sceptics of his relentless pupillage, he says he once pushed a wheelbarrow of his educational paperwork onto a stage at a conference.
Apparently the secret to earning 25 college degrees is “get up early, go to bed late”.
”I get antsy in bed,” he says, “I listen to audiobooks in bed at the weekend so I don’t need to get up and annoy my wife too much.”
However he does it, he seems far better qualified than me to order a bottle of wine, so I leave him to it. Which, I later discover, turns out to be a mixed blessing.
One immutable protocol
There is no way of knowing whether Wright is Nakamoto, so I’ve decided not to go down that rabbit hole. Even if he isn’t, the huge effort he is putting into this claim is enough to make it worth unpicking what the agenda is here.
As he tells it – with technical deep-dives and asides stripped out – the BTC bitcoin that gets a lot of the headlines is not really bitcoin at all. Its creators “forked” from his authentic version by using a different protocol or software. This spurred a new, separate chain of transactions, in effect creating a new bitcoin.
Wright won’t use the word “fork” as to him this suggests some residual relationship to the Nakamoto ideal. BTC, he says, has the veneer of a decentralised system, but is actually controlled by a few individuals and nodes whose agenda is to avoid the regulatory net.
As with other cryptocurrencies, he says, those who control BTC can change the protocols by which it operates, leaving those who use it open to the whims of the controllers.
He says bitcoin should have only the one immutable protocol, and he, as Nakamoto, is contractually bound to offer that.
This is why he can argue that his effort to stop other people infringing his claimed patent and database rights is not a bid for control. He is obliged to keep things as they are.
“It’s literally law of contract. The whole thing is, if I make a promise that it’s set in stone then I’m bound by that. And anyone using the system, if I change anything, can sue me.
“I mean, ironically, everyone talks about giving away power. But I am completely bound by my promise.”
We ordered food at the same time as the wine, and our starters are quickly with us. Wright is having a pork pie, which has been artistically and expertly deconstructed into its constituent parts.
I want this to be plumbing. People may not even realise they’re using bitcoin.
— Craig Wright
I’ve chanced my arm: focaccia. I associate the word with those hunks of stale, dry bread you used to get in Sydney cafes in the antediluvian 1980s and early 1990s. But, like bitcoin perhaps, Berners’ offering is a kind of fork: warm, tender and delicious, it bears little resemblance to any previous incarnation.
Wright’s other big gripe about BTC is that it works via nodes rather than peer-to-peer, which he says prevents it from scaling up and becoming a cash-like medium of exchange.
Unlike the forks, Wright wants “his” bitcoin’s transaction fees to be microscopic. On the huge transaction volumes that he envisages, bitcoin miners could make good money from transaction fees, rather than from being paid in overvalued BTC.
This would allow people in poorer countries to have a stable, reliable means to trade and transact. “Not $40 fees, but 1000th of a cent – that is the concept, micropayments,” he says. “Like it says in the damn paper.
“Technically, when they copied my database, they gave me a whole lot of free BTC. But I’d rather have the thing used for what I want it used for.
“What I don’t want is people to come along and gamble and speculate. What I want is people who build things. I want this to be plumbing. People may not even realise they’re using bitcoin. If they don’t even know, I’ll be happier.”
My worry about this lunch was that it would inevitably be railroaded into a conversation about the technicalities of Wright’s bitcoin battle.
But we careen all over the place: one moment talking about tulip mania, the next about Indigenous Australian myths. Our language also becomes saltier; the surprisingly velvety Australian shiraz is clearly doing its work.
We delve into his past. His grandfather, he says, was a cryptographer who worked on cracking Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma.
His mother was a computer programmer and operator, though she told him at one point that the internet would never catch on. His dad, a promising rugby league player, was conscripted to the Vietnam War and was left a broken man.
Wright initially studied maths at university in Queensland. But a bout of cancer in his 20s led him to a PhD in theology, and he converted from Catholicism to Wesleyanism.
I’m quite struck by this. Wesleyans place unyielding import on the original scripture, and can be highly evangelical. The parallels with Wright’s messianic bitcoin mission are hard to miss.
For example, I ask him at some point why, if he’d wanted to start up a new system of democratising digital cash, he didn’t just begin afresh with a new blockchain-based system, rather than fight for it to be Nakamoto’s bitcoin.
He says that would have been easier. But “if I’m making a system that is about truth, then truth matters”.
As we tuck into our mains – he’s staying true to his Queenslander roots with a hefty steak, I’m having a nicely balanced risotto – I ask him what he thinks will happen to cryptocurrencies.
He’s in the Ponzi camp. “It has value because people buy into it and so the price goes up,” he says. “That has a limited life.”
He reckons that within two years, people will see that there is no way to cash out. You can’t spend BTC on small items if the transaction fees are sky-high, he says, and there are only so many Ferraris, mansions and yachts people will want to buy. He hopes his court cases will help burst the bubble before it gets even bigger.
His version of bitcoin, meanwhile, could scale to 10 billion transactions a second, which, at a fee of 1000th of a cent average, creates a $US40 trillion industry.
“The level of what we’re building will dwarf the whole of Silicon Valley,” he says.
Central banks are also trying to create digital cash, and Wright says they will have to pay him a licence fee. “Maybe they’ll find a way that I haven’t thought of, but I’ve got over 100 patents on central bank digital currencies.”
Industry built on deceit
If the Reserve Bank of Australia or Bank of England start one, “I’ll knock on their door to pay me licence fees. If they don’t want to, it will be prohibitively expensive. If they do, it won’t be. I mean, I can be incredibly fair and cheap and then make it open and competitive. Or not. And I’m very happy either way.”
It sounds risky to leave that in the hands of Wright’s group of companies. He says he’s contractually bound not to change the protocol. But that is because he’s Nakamoto. What about when he’s gone? He admits he doesn’t know.
We’ve regretfully finished the wine – although when I discover that the bottle cost £119 ($212), I’m pretty glad we only got through one – and are on to coffee.
It’s easy to see why Wright riles people, and by this point of the story many readers will already be getting ready to email me their outrage that I’ve given him the time of day. They say he is using “lawfare” to try to fraudulently claim ownership of an open system, to benefit his own corporate interests.
He says it’s because he is exposing an industry built on deceit and deception.
“They want Satoshi not to exist because then they can keep going: there’s no person, there’s no issuer,” he says. “But I am the issuer, with all the requirements under law that means.”
But even among people who want there to be a Nakamoto, many are unhappy that it might be Wright.
He is perfectly pleasant lunch company, but he is very forthright. He tells me that he chose to create bitcoin anonymously, as Nakamoto, because “even back then, I annoyed a lot of people”.
Even his former church once suggested he stay away from the people-facing proselytising and look after the organisation’s banking functions instead.
I suggest, based somewhat on personal experience, that realising people find you annoying can be a useful bit of self-understanding. “If you get told enough, you start to understand,” he says ruefully.
I haven’t found him grating, but I’m no closer to paring back his brio and uncovering his relationship with the truth.
However, our longish lunch is now adjourned. So we’ll have to leave that particular verdict to the courts.
Berners Tavern, 10 Berners Street, London
Pork and pistachio pie, £18
Focaccia, pesto, goat cheese mousse, £16
Rib-eye steak with peppercorn sauce, £42
Spring herb risotto, £28
Sparkling water x 3, £17.25
Flat white, £4.50
D’Arenberg The Dead Arm shiraz, £119
Total £249.25 ($442)