Court’s Remain Unclear About Bitcoin’s Status

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Bitcoin touts itself as an “innovative payment network and a new kind of money.” Also known as “cryptocurrency,” Bitcoin was hatched out of a paper posted online by a mysterious gentleman named Satoshi Nakamoto (he has never been identified). The Bitcoin economy is quite complex, but it is generally based on the principle that Bitcoins are released into networks at a steady pace determined by algorithms.

Although once shrouded in ambiguity, Bitcoins threatened to upend (or “disrupt” in Silicon Valley speak) the payment industry. At their core, Bitcoins are just unique strings of information that users mine and typically store on their desktops. The list of companies that accept Bitcoins is growing and includes cable companies, professional sports teams, and even a fringe American political party. According to its proponents, Bitcoins offer lower transaction costs and increased privacy without inflation that affects fiat currency.

Technologies like Bitcoins do not come without interesting legal implications. One of the oft-cited downsides of Bitcoins is that they can facilitate criminal enterprises. In such cases, courts must address what status Bitcoins have in the current economy. The Southern District of New York recently held that Bitcoins were unequivocally a form of currency for purposes of criminal prosecution. In United States v. Murgio et al., Judge Alison Nathan determined Bitcoins are money because “Bitcoins can be accepted as payment for goods and services or bought directly from an exchange with a bank account . . . and are used as a medium of exchange and a means of payment.” By contrast, the IRS classifies virtual currency as property.
Bitcoins are uncertain, volatile, and complex, but they continue to be accepted as currency and show no signs of fading away. Going forward, the judiciary will need to streamline its treatment of Bitcoins.

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