August 15, 2022
In 2008, a “white paper” entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” was published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. It is widely believed that the author went on to invent Bitcoin and there has been much speculation since then as to the identity of Satoshi. Various people have been suggested, including the claimant in these proceedings, Dr Craig Wright, a computer scientist and businessman active in the cryptocurrency and blockchain sphere. Dr Wright now accepts the claim that he is Satoshi.
Peter McCormack is a podcaster and blogger specialising in cryptocurrency content. Between 29 March and 29 August 2019, he published a series of tweets stating that Dr Wright is not Satoshi and his claims to be Satoshi are fraudulent. He made similar claims in a video discussion broadcast on 18 October 2019 on YouTube, where it remains accessible.
Dr Wright issued proceedings against Mr McCormack for libel. Initially, Mr McCormack pleaded a defence of truth, but later abandoned it due to the costs of legal representation for such a trial. Accordingly, the identity of Satoshi was not among the issues the court had to determine.
It was agreed that the meaning of the tweets was that Dr Wright had fraudulently claimed to be Satoshi, the person or one of the group of people, who developed bitcoin. As for the video discussion, which lasted for over three hours, Mr Justice Chamberlain found that, considering it as a whole, the meaning was that there were reasonable grounds for questioning or inquiring as to whether Dr Wright had fraudulently claimed to be Satoshi. Both meanings were defamatory at common law.
As for whether Mr McCormack was liable for publication of the video discussion, there was no dispute that he was liable for the live stream of the event. As for re-publication by posting the recording on YouTube, Chamberlain J noted that according to case law a person who supplies another with information intending or knowing that it is liable to be republished is held prima facie liable for the publication of what he or she provided. In this case, it was more likely than not that Mr McCormack knew that when he participated in the discussion it was being recorded and that it would be made available online. It was, after all, described as a podcast. Therefore, the republication was the “natural consequence” of participation in the discussion and Mr McCormack was liable.
In respect of serious harm, Dr Wright initially pleaded that he had been invited to speak and present academic papers at ten academic conferences, which had all accepted his papers following peer review, and all ten had later withdrawn their invitations as a result of Mr McCormack’s publications. Mr McCormack adduced evidence from two of the institutions named by Dr Wright. One stated that Dr Wright had submitted a paper, but it had been rejected on merit once peer-reviewed, and he had never been invited to speak. The other stated that he had never even submitted a paper and was never invited to speak. Following this, Dr Wright withdrew this part of his case, claiming that he was doing so because the disinvitations came from institutions overseas from individuals who had read the tweets outside this jurisdiction.
Mr McCormack submitted that this was an unconvincing explanation, as Dr Wright had amended his case to restrict it to damages in this jurisdiction a long time previously. He said that it should be inferred that the true reason for the withdrawal of this part of Dr Wright’s case was the exposure of its falsity.
Chamberlain J found that there was no documentary evidence that: (i) Dr Wright had a paper accepted following a blind peer review process at any of the academic conferences he had identified; or (ii) Dr Wright had ever received an invitation to speak at any of those conferences; or (iii) that any such invitation was rescinded. Therefore, Dr Wright’s explanation for abandoning this part of his case just days before trial did not withstand scrutiny. He had abandoned it as it had been exposed as factually false. Accordingly, Chamberlain J concluded that Dr Wright had given deliberately false evidence on serious harm.
At trial, Dr Wright’s case on serious harm was based on: (i) the inherent seriousness of the imputation conveyed by each tweet; (ii) the significant extent of publication in the UK; and (iii) evidence of actual harm in the UK.
The evidence showed that the number of people who viewed the tweets in this jurisdiction was in each case significant and in some cases very substantial. Further, the publications came from a well-known podcaster and acknowledged expert in cryptocurrency. They were unequivocal in their meaning. Many people who read them would have known that there was a lively debate about whether Dr Wright was Satoshi, but some of them must have been influenced by reading Mr McCormack’s trenchantly expressed contribution to that debate. The fact that he was willing to state his views so brazenly in response to threats of libel proceedings was likely to have made those who read them more, not less, likely to believe them. Therefore, Chamberlain J found that it was more likely than not that each of the publications had caused serious harm to Dr Wright’s reputation.
As for damages, Chamberlain J found that the deliberately false case on serious harm advanced by Dr Wright until days before trial required more than a mere reduction in the award of damages. In his view, it made it unconscionable that Dr Wright should receive any more than nominal damages. Judgment was entered on the claim for Dr Wright in the sum of £1. (Craig Steven Wright v Peter McCormack  EWHC 2068 (QB) (1 August 2022) — to read the judgment in full, click here).