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Armed with little money and a limited understanding of UK libel law, podcaster Peter McCormack is mounting a legal battle that he says will probably bankrupt him.
“The stakes are quite high,’” he said in an interview today. “All the legal advice is, ‘Don’t do this.’”
But he is doing this. On April 12. Craig Wright, a controversial and outspoken advocate of the Bitcoin SV fork, filed legal papers asserting that McCormack had libeled him. The offense, claimed Wright, was that the podcaster had denied Wright’s long-standing (and oft-ridiculed) claim that he is Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin. Wright is seeking an unspecified sum in damages.
Yet McCormack has welcomed the lawsuit, practically begging Wright to take him to court, which amounts to a sort of moral crusade for him: "If you know a fraud and you don’t call them a fraud, you yourself are a fraud," he said. "And he is a fraud, he is fraudulently convincing people of ideas which are patently untrue. There is very little difference between Craig Wright and [convicted Ponzi scheme scammer] Bernie Madoff."
Wright’s claim has been a source of contention ever since 2015, when Wired published an article that said the real Satoshi is “probably this unknown Australian genius.”
The story was based on a leak that turned out to be a dud—allegedly staged by Wright himself. Nevertheless, Wright pressed on, offering supposed cryptographic proof linking him with the first ever Bitcoin transaction—authorized by Satoshi. Experts subsequently dismissed the “proof” as bunk, and opprobrium grew against him, earning him the unflattering nickname, “Faketoshi,” which has since blossomed into a popular hashtag.
McCormack—the host of popular podcast What Bitcoin Did—was among many who were openly calling Wright a fraud. The dust up erupted last week after the Australian, vocally supported by his billionaire friend Calvin Ayre, threatened a popular, anonymous cryptocurrency trader, “Hodlonaut”—and, later, Ethereum inventor Vitalik Buterin and trade site, Chepicap—with a libel lawsuit.
Waving a red cape at the raging Wright, McCormack taunted: "I would like to formally state that, 1. Craig Wright is not Satoshi, 2. Craig Wright is a fraud, 3. I hope as many people ReTweet this as possible. Please send legal correspondence to 5, Goldington Road, Bedford, Bedfordshire, MK40 3JY, UK. Regards, Peter."
Needless to say, the bait worked. Two days later, McCormack received an email from Wright’s lawyer, demanding that he remove the offending posts, apologize publicly and acknowledge that Wright is, indeed, Satoshi. But McCormack only threw fuel on the fire: “I find it difficult to understand how I can affect the reputation of your client. This mistakenly states that he has any reputation left," he wrote in a letter—shared on Twitter—during the weekend.
Wright could not be reached for comment.
In an interview with Decrypt today, McCormack allowed that he had indeed climbed out on a limb: “I’ve kind of gone against what I’ve been advised legally,” he said. “They said don’t do this, you’ll be wrapped up for months, it’ll cost a load of money, and you have to go through some bullshit due process [instead]. And if I do that, it loses the impact. I don’t give a fuck.”
Yet McCormack is certain he has a case, claiming that the onus is on Wright to prove that he isn’t a fraud.
That’s not strictly true. Both McCormack and Wright reside in the UK, where libel laws are far more plaintiff friendly. The theory is that Wright wouldn’t necessarily have to provide proof that he is Satoshi, just discredit McCormack’s claim that he isn’t—leaving McCormack to prove a negative.
Still, Wright's work isn't cut out for him. Daniel Taylor, a UK-based libel lawyer at Taylor Hampton Solicitors, said that the UK's reputation as a hotbed for "libel tourism" was disingenuous, and that Wright would still have to offer a full-blooded defense against McCormack's own testimony. "The defense will detail all the circumstantial evidence, and if that's sufficient to build up a picture in the mind of the judge, the judge has to make a decision—'do we believe the claimant or the defendant?"' he said. "The idea that this guy Craig Wright basically has to state what the meaning of the libel is and then sit back and do nothing, it just doesn't work like that.'
But still, compared with US courts—where a plaintiff must demonstrate that the accused has "malicious intent"—UK courts might offer Wright some respite, So. given the magnitude of risks and the complexity of the case, is McCormack brushed up on the relevant laws?
“Not enough,” he said. Still, he has a dozen lawyers offering free advice, three of whom he’s actually consulted. Though he ignored the attorney who told him “not to do this,” he did refrain from demanding that Wright “admit he is not Satoshi, stop making those claims and apologize for being a dickhead,” he said.
McCormack said he sees three scenarios playing out: “The first scenario is, he backs down and doesn’t take me to court, meaning he and Calvin completely lose face, since it’s an admission that, ‘I have nothing.’" The second scenario is, Wright “goes to court, loses the case, and at that point he is proven, forever, to be someone without any credibility.”
The third scenario? “He wins, and financially ruins me."
The podcaster agreed that the stakes are “quite high.” “It appears fun right now but it probably won’t be,” he said. “I think most likely, this’ll pan out bad for me.” (So much so that he’s yet to tell his family or friends about the debacle, he said.)
McCormack is hardly a wealthy man. He lives in a four bedroom, semi-detached house in Bedford, an hour north of London. He’s a single father to two kids. He reckons his net worth is about $150,000, which is $5,000 below the UK average.
But he said he’s willing to lose all of that (except the podcast and the kids) to stand up against a person he describes as a "bully." Having twice before lost sums in the millions—once from a startup, and another from Bitcoin investments—he’s a veteran of financial ruin.
“Even if I lose the case, I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll get a job. I’m sure someone will keep an eye on me. And if I win the case, then I’ve proven he’s a fraud.”
Either way, he said, “I think it’s a lose-lose for him, and a win-win for me.”