Who Owns Bitcoin? Private Law Facing the Blockchain

36 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2019 Last revised: 14 Mar 2020

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: June 11, 2019


Blockchain, or “distributed ledger” technology, has been devised as an alternative to the law of finance. While it has become clear by now that regulation in the public interest is necessary, for example to avoid money laundering, drug dealing or tax evasion, the particularly thorny issues of private law have been less discussed. These include, for instance, the right to reverse an erroneous transfer, the ownership of stolen coins and the effects of succession or bankruptcy of a bitcoin holder. All of these questions require answers from a legal perspective because the technology ignores them.

Particular difficulties arise when one tries to apply a property analysis to the blockchain. Surprisingly, it is far from clear how virtual currencies and other crypto assets are transferred and acquired. The traditional requirements posed by private law, such as an agreement between the parties and the transfer of possession, are incompatible with the technology. Moreover, the idea of a “void” or “null” transfer is hard to reconcile with the immutability that characterizes the blockchain.

Before any such questions can be answered, it is necessary to determine the law governing blockchain transfers and assets. This is the point where conflict of laws, or “private international law”, comes into play. Conflicts lawyers are used to submitting legal relations to the law of the country with the most significant connection. But seemingly insurmountable problems occur because decentralized ledgers with no physical connecting factors do not lend themselves to this type of “localization” exercise.

The issue of this paper therefore is: How can blockchain be squared with traditional categories of private law, including private international law? The proposal made herein avoids the recourse to a newly fashioned “lex digitalis” or “lex cryptographica”. Rather, it is suggested that the problems can be solved by using existing national laws, supplemented by an international text. At the same time, the results produced by DLT should also be accepted as legally protected and corrected only where necessary under the applicable national rules. In this way, a symbiosis between private law and innovative technology can be created.

Keywords: Blockchain, Distributed Ledger Technology, Conflict of Laws, Private Law, Private International Law

JEL Classification: G10, G15, K22, K33, O16, O33

Suggested Citation

Lehmann, Matthias, Who Owns Bitcoin? Private Law Facing the Blockchain (June 11, 2019). 21 Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 93 (2019), European Banking Institute Working Paper Series 2019 – no. 42, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3402678 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3402678

Matthias Lehmann (Contact Author)

University of Vienna ( email )

Schottenbastei 10-16
Vienna, A-1010
+431427735122 (Phone)
1010 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://https://eur-int-comp-law.univie.ac.at/team/lehmann-matthias/

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics