Thursday, 3 March 2016

Blockchain Technology and Electronic Transferable Records

Here is the powerpoint file for my presentation at the seminar "Electronisation of Transferable Documents or Instruments Used in International Trade" (10-11 March 2016) in Singapore (organised by UNCITRAL, Attorney-General’s Chambers of Singapore and the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS)).

Monday, 21 December 2015

Blockchain-based electronic transferable record's functional equivalence to endorsement of paper-based transferable documents

A chain of transactions of an electronic record on a blockchain looks like a chain of endorsements on a paper-based transferable document except that the transactions are anonymous. Despite the anonymity, the blockchain technology ensures a far greater security than bearer documents. I think, therefore, that the law should be crafted in such a way as to allow documents made to order (such as order bills of lading) as well as bearer documents (such as bearer bills of lading) to be replaced by blockchain-based electronic records.
From that point of view, this post will examine the draft text of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records. I have noted in my earlier post that the work on the Model Law should be pursued with the blockchain technology in mind so as to facilitate its applications to replace paper-based transferable documents. As of the time of writing, the most recent official documents containing a draft text are A/CN.9/WG.IV/WP.135 and A/CN.9/WG.IV/WP.135/Add.1, both dated August 2015. The draft provisions quoted below are taken from them.

Draft article 19. Endorsement
Where the law requires or permits the endorsement in any form of a paper-based transferable document or instrument, that requirement is met with respect to an electronic transferable record if information [relating to the endorsement] [constituting endorsement] [indicating the intention to endorse] is [logically associated or otherwise linked to] [included in] that electronic
transferable record and that information is compliant with the requirements set forth in articles 8 and 9.

While an electronic record on a registry may include information constituting endorsement, in the case of an electronic record on a blockchain, it is the blockchain (or, to be more precise, a chain of transactions contained therein) rather than the record itself which indicates intentions of endorsement. Accordingly, the expressions "indicating the intention to endorse" and "logically associated with" seem better cater for the blockchain technology. The words “logically associated” was indeed retained "to provide for all possible instances and methods for the incorporation of an endorsement in an electronic transferable record." (A/CN.9/828, para. 80).
A more difficult question relates to compliance with the requirement set forth in Article 9.

Draft article 9. Signature
Where the law requires a signature of a person, that requirement is met [with respect to] [in relation to] [by] an electronic transferable record if:
(a) A method is used to identify that person and to indicate that person’s intention in respect of the information contained in the electronic record; and
(b) The method used is either ...

This provision will not pose problem with respect to a blockchain-based electronic record to the extent it applies to signatures to be included in the record itself, e.g. a "for the master" signature on a bill of lading. 
It is also intended, as indicated by Draft Article 19, to cover signatures for endorsements. It would be natural to impose a signature requirement to ensure functional equivalence to endorsement, especially if we envisage a registry-based electronic transferable record.  But the requirement of identification, if it is read as requiring identification by name, would be incompatible with electronic records on an open, permissionless blockchain since the parties are anonymous. Logistically, it seems possible to build a system whereby the performance of the obligation represented by the electronic record (e.g. the delivery of goods) is effected without the name of the holder of the private key having to be revealed to the obligor (e.g. carrier) by, for example, allowing the record to activate a key in the physical world (e.g. the key to the container). In my earlier post, I have suggested that a blockchain-based bill of lading may, for that reason, be seen as functionally equivalent to a bearer bill of lading. But the present post is considering how to make rules enabling the replacement of order bills of lading (and other documents made to order) with a blockchain-based electronic records. 
The word "identify" also appears in the following provision.

Draft article 17. [Possession] [Control]
1. Where the law requires the possession of a paper-based transferable document or instrument, that requirement is met with respect to an electronic transferable record if:
(a) A method is used to establish exclusive control of that electronic transferable record by a person and to reliably [identify] [establish] that person as the person in control; and
(b) The method used is either ...

The Secretariat notes, "identification should not be understood as implying an obligation to name the person in control" (para. 22) (See my earlier post for a comment). It would aid clarity to say so expressly in the provision. The same could be done in draft Article 19 and it would make it friendlier to blockchain-based electronic records. But it might not be satisfactory for register-based electronic records. That is why I call this a "more difficult question."

Monday, 14 December 2015

Law applicable to a restitutionary claim arising from a mistaken remittance

The bitcoin addresses are randomly generated long alphanumeric strings and prone to be mistyped. If bitcoin is transferred to a wrong address by mistake, what law is applicable to a restitutionary claim by the transferor against the transferee?
This post will consider this question under the Rome II Regulation (Regulation (EC) No 864/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 July 2007 on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations) as it is an influential instrument in private international law. Its Article 10 contains choice-of-law rules for unjust enrichment in the following terms:

1. If a non-contractual obligation arising out of unjust enrichment, including payment of amounts wrongly received, concerns a relationship existing between the parties, such as one arising out of a contract or a tort/delict, that is closely connected with that unjust enrichment, it shall be governed by the law that governs that relationship.
2. Where the law applicable cannot be determined on the basis of paragraph 1 and the parties have their habitual residence in the same country when the event giving rise to unjust enrichment occurs, the law of that country shall apply.
3. Where the law applicable cannot be determined on the basis of paragraphs 1 or 2, it shall be the law of the country in which the unjust enrichment took place.
4. Where it is clear from all the circumstances of the case that the non-contractual obligation arising out of unjust enrichment is manifestly more closely connected with a country other than that indicated in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3, the law of that other country shall apply.

In most cases of mistaken remittance, para. 3 will be applicable. Its connecting factor is the occurrence of the unjust enrichment, as distinguished from the occurrence of the event giving rise to the enrichment.
The application of this provision to mistaken remittance of a bank deposit is not particularly difficult. If, for example, A mistakenly transfers money from his Italian bank account to B's bank account in Spain, Spanish law is applicable to A's restitutionary claim against B. It has been suggested that in localising the situs of enrichment, the discrete asset, rather than the centre of wealth of the enriched person, should be focused on (Huber / Huber / Bach, Rome II Regulation (2011), Art. 10, para. 28). Thus, even if B lives in Portugal and maintains all assets there, it is immaterial.
The application of para. 3 is not as simple in the case of remittance of cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, since there is no such thing as a bank account. Remittance of cryptocurrency takes place between addresses on a blockchain. The addresses are not associated with any physical location, unlike bank accounts. Neither is it possible to localise the blockchain since it is a distributed ledger. Faute de mieux, the unjust enrichment should be deemed to have taken place at the habitual residence of the enriched person. The concept of "habitual residence" is elaborated on at Article 23 in the following terms:

1. For the purposes of this Regulation, the habitual residence of companies and other bodies, corporate or unincorporated, shall be the place of central administration.
Where the event giving rise to the damage occurs, or the damage arises, in the course of operation of a branch, agency or any other establishment, the place where the branch, agency or any other establishment is located shall be treated as the place of habitual residence.
2. For the purposes of this Regulation, the habitual residence of a natural person acting in the course of his or her business activity shall be his or her principal place of business.

Paragraph 2 would not be applicable in the context presently discussed because the person enriched by receiving a mistakenly remitted cryptocurrency would not be deemed to be "acting in the course of his or her business activity." Nor would the second sentence of paragraph 1 be applicable since it seems only concerned with the habitual residence of a tortfeasor.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Why documents of title are an attractive use case of the blockchain technology

In my earlier post, I have noted that there are no fewer than three different functions which an electronic record issued and transferred on a blockchain can fulfill. Each of them has a great potential but needs support from legal infrastructure. Thus, no electronic record can be deemed to embody an entitlement to the performance of obligations unless so treated by the applicable law. It is no different from acknowledging that  a paper-based transferable document would be only a piece of paper without empowering legislation. Accordingly, an electronic transferable record on a blockchain cannot function as a document of title merely by agreement of private parties.
There is, however, one feature of documents of title which make them particularly attractive as a possible use case of the blockchain technology. It is their essential feature, the guarantee of singularity. That feature had been considered to be difficult to emulate in an electronic environment and the only means which had been available was a registry administered by a trusted entity. But the blockchain technology has now made it possible to guarantee singularity in a de-centralised way. The essential feature of documents of title is thus taken care of by technology without need for legal support.
The construction of a supporting legal infrastructure takes time. In the meantime, notwithstanding the risk of unintended legal consequences, entrepreneurs develop business practices to cater for demands on the market. We have been witnessing such phenomena in the bitcoin business. Are there sufficient demands to support experimental documents of title on a blockchain?

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Different functions of electronic transferable records: UNCITRAL's definition

There are no fewer than three different functions which electronic records transferable on a blockchain may perform with the necessary support of applicable laws. The Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records currently drafted by UNCITRAL is only applicable to a type of electronic transferable record which fulfills one of them.
According to the latest draft published in an official document (A/CN.9/WG.IV/WP.135), for the purpose of the Model Law, an “electronic transferable record” [is an electronic record that contains all of the information that would make a paper-based transferable document or instrument effective and ... "(Draft Article 3). The same article defines “paper-based transferable document or instrument” as "a transferable document or instrument issued on paper that entitles the holder to claim the performance of the obligation [indicated] in the document or instrument and ...". It will be possible to use a blockchain to transfer an electronic record which contains all of the information that would make a paper-based bill of lading, for example, effective. Such a record would would constitute an "electronic transferable record" within the meaning of the draft Model Law.
Cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, do not represent entitlement to claim the performance of any obligation. Unlike the traditional forms of electronic money, there is nobody who owes obligation to the holder of cryptocurrencies. If right conditions exist, the market will find an inherent value in cryptocurrencies (or some of them) and recognises them as substitutes for money. Cryptocurrencies are electronic records and transferable on a blockchain. But they do not fall within the definition of the Model Law.
A blockchain may also be used to transfer an electronic record indicating proprietary interests (such as security interests) in tangible or intangible properties. My suggestion for substituting a blockchain-based ledger for the registry of the Cape Town Convention (See my earlier post) relates to this type of usage. Such electronic transferable records do not represent entitlement to claim the performance of any obligation. Hence, they do not come within the definition of the Model Law.
The current Model Law project, therefore, leaves a vast area of use cases of the blockchain technology untouched. I think that UNCITRAL can be instrumental in harnessing the technology in all its applications. 

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

松岡久和「アメリカ法における追及の法理と特定性―違法な金銭混和事例を中心に」

 田髙論文(過去記事参照)と同じく、標記論文(林良平献呈論文集『現代における物権法と債権法の交錯』(有斐閣、1998年)357~394頁所収)は、金銭騙取や誤振込などの場合に、騙取者や不当利得者の無資力危険を返還権利者に負担させることが妥当かという問題提起をする。しかし、返還権利者の物権的保護の可能性を検討する田髙論文に対して、本論稿は、返還権利者の権利を債権と構成しても、一定の場合には優先的な弁済受領を認めることができないかという問題意識の下で、優先権付与の要件として必要とされる客体の特定性をアメリカ法の追及法理の下で検討している。仮想通貨の騙取や誤振込の場合の分析にも参考になる記述が多い。
 規範的な追及可能性が技術的な追及可能性とは一致しないことを指摘した本ブログの過去記事との関係で、特に注目すべきと思われるのは、価値的な同一性として「特定性」が理解されていることである。本論稿によると、アメリカの判例・通説は、とりわけ金銭については、物体的な同一性は問題としておらず、日本の物権的価値返還請求権説が提示する特定性よりも、はるかに緩やかに特定性を認めているとのことである。

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Choice-of-law aspects of the judgment on the ownership of bitcoins


As I mentioned in my earlier post, the Tokyo District Court in its judgment on 5 August 2015 denied the ownership (more precisely, "shoyûken" in Japanese) of bitcoins. In that post, I have also noted that translating "shoyûken" into the English word "ownership" may be misleading.
In this post, I will look at the choice-of-law aspects. The judgment is based on the assumption that Japanese law was the applicable law without giving any reasons. Nor did either party discuss choice-of-law issues (according to the Court's summary of their arguments).
The scope of the bankruptcy estate of MTGOX is surely a matter for Japanese law since the bankruptcy proceedings opened in Japan. The effect of Japanese bankruptcy proceedings extends to all assets of the bankrupt wherever in the world they are situated. This follows from the repeal in 2000 of the then Article 3(1) of the Bankruptcy Act which provided:
The bankruptcy which is declared in Japan shall only have effect on the asset of the bankrupt situated in Japan.
The bankruptcy estate of MTGOX, therefore, covers all bitcoin units wherever situated. Here, the borderless nature of the blockchain poses no problem.
On the other hand, it is not as obvious that Japanese law was the governing law of the plaintiff's ownership-based claim to recover the bitcoin units. On the face of it, the application of Japanese law may seem uncontroversial since there were no strong foreign elements in that case: the plaintiff was an individual residing in Kyoto and the defendant was the bankruptcy representative of the bankrupt MTGOX, a Tokyo-based company, appointed in the Japanese bankruptcy proceedings. But as I noted in my earlier post, choice-of-law rules for determining the ownership of intangible property are not well-established and, depending on the connecting factor to be adopted, the borderless nature of the blockchain may make it difficult to localise bitcoin units in a particular country. If the plaintiff had been a foreigner residing abroad (which would not have been a remote possibility since a majority of the creditors of MTGOX are such persons), the parties and the court might have felt it necessary to address the choice-of-law question.