Some people in the bitcoin world—the believers still waving the flag for the leading digital currency, which is currently trading at $427—will tell you that the phrase “The Internet of Money” is widely understood as a reference to bitcoin and its underlying technology, the blockchain. But Uphold, a “cloud bank” startup that launched in 2014, will tell you it is their corporate slogan. It applied to register the phrase as its trademark for financial services back in September 2015 with the US Patent & Trademark Office, and is far along in the process.
Andreas Antonopoulos doesn’t like that. The cybersecurity expert and author of "Mastering Bitcoin" has waged a war with Uphold, encouraging his 47,000 Twitter followers to help him find the earliest uses of the words “Internet of money.” Uphold’s adoption of the slogan, he tells Yahoo Finance, “perverts the meaning of the phrase.”
The law is on Uphold’s side; there’s not much Antonopoulos can do to stop Uphold from getting its registration. But of all people, Antonopoulos is a loud enemy for a fintech company to have.
To understand the complexity of this feud, we must step back and examine the two sides and their reputations in the financial tech industry.
Uphold is a “cloud money vault” that lets you convert funds between 25 different currencies or four precious metals. When it first launched, in 2014, customers had to make deposits in bitcoin, and the company had a different name: Bitreserve. It has since rebranded, and in a way, ditched association with bitcoin. Uphold customers can still deposit bitcoin or exchange other currencies to bitcoin, but they don’t need to start with bitcoin. You could deposit U.S. dollars, for example, and convert them to pesos to send money to a friend in Mexico, never dealing with bitcoin in any way.
Uphold now boasts more than $100 million in funds held in Uphold wallets, and says more than $900 million in transaction volume has been exchanged on the site. It is also part of a pilot program with the Antwerp World Diamond Centre that encourages a large portion of the world’s diamond traders to use Uphold for conversion of funds.
Uphold CEO Anthony Watson, whose resume includes executive roles at Citi (C), Wells Fargo (WFC), Barclays (BCS) and Nike (NKE), has publicly expressed doubts about bitcoin, which has not ingratiated him to the vocal community of enthusiasts with high hopes for the currency. “I’ll be surprised if bitcoin is here in five years,” he told Fortune last year. “It’s a means to an end. The value of bitcoin isn’t the currency, but the technology. I think once the world becomes more accustomed and attuned to the platform of bitcoin, the noise will go away, and the currency will go away too.” On forums like Reddit, bitcoin believers have disparaged Watson and Uphold.
Here's why the dispute between Uphold and Antonopoulos should matter to the larger financial market: Uphold is one of many fintech companies, along with Dwolla, TransferWise, Venmo, and Xoom, to name a few, that make a similar value claim: shorter transfer times and smaller transfer fees. That has been a popular selling point of bitcoin, too—but bitcoin risks collapsing due to problems with its own infrastructure. Meanwhile, 45 major global banks have signed on to a consortium to test out a form of blockchain, the technology on which bitcoin runs—but a closed version of blockchain, without bitcoin.
Antonopoulos is highly respected in bitcoin circles, but not a known name in the broader, big-business world. In March, he tweeted at Watson, “You are aware that others (e.g. myself) used the phrase ‘The Internet of Money’ in business long before you did?” He asked his followers to find the earliest uses of the phrase related to digital currency, and received many responses. He says people have used it to refer to bitcoin since 2010.
There’s just one problem with that: It likely does not matter. “The idea that it is relevant to find the first usage of the term is misguided,” says trademark attorney Martin Schwimmer, a partner at the firm Leason Ellis. “Prior art,” he says, is a concept more often applied to patents. Earlier uses of the phrase (not as a trademark) have no bearing on Uphold’s ability to register it as a trademark. Antonopoulos understand this. “Legally, it is irrelevant,” he cedes. “Morally, taking a generic phrase you didn't invent from an open community and claiming exclusivity is a slimy move.”
To be clear, Antonopoulos isn’t looking to assert exclusive rights to the phrase. But he rejects Uphold’s right to do so. (One might wonder if he is partially motivated by animosity toward a company that abandoned bitcoin; Antonopoulos says that isn't the case, and says he has an Uphold account.) “I've used the phrase for years to refer to bitcoin, long before Uphold existed,” he says, “And my use of it excluded no one.” In keeping with the spirit of bitcoin, which operates on a public, decentralized, anonymized ledger (the bitcoin blockchain), Antonopoulos believes the slogan belongs to the public. He even launched an "Internet of Money Tour" to travel around and spread the word.
So, let’s say the public agrees with him, and doesn’t believe Uphold should get to use “The Internet of the Money” as its slogan. Can it stop the company from doing so? Likely no, says trademark attorney Ed Timberlake, in part because in this case “the public,” as defined by Antonopoulos (i.e., the relatively small pool of the bitcoin community) is likely only a fraction of the group that the USPTO would define as relevant consumers. (The much larger public is still largely uninformed, and arguably uninterested, in bitcoin.) “The Trademark Office doesn’t give a huge amount of weight to a factional community, they typically have a broader view of what the relevant public is,” says Timberlake, who spent two years working at the U.S. Trademark Office.
The key question the Trademark Office will answer is whether the phrase has been so widely used that it has become diluted. Or as Timberlake puts it: When the public thinks of the phrase in the context of the financial technology sector, do people associate the phrase with Uphold?
Antonopoulos would say no, and many in the bitcoin community might say no, and perhaps the answer is no. But Uphold will probably get the registration anyway. Timberlake says the Trademark Office doesn’t so rigidly interpret the question. It's not that the office approves everything, but it leans toward approving applications for registration when the company has demonstrated some use of the trademark. The office doesn’t want to make it impossible to get approval. “No one wants the headache of mounting a federal lawsuit every time they want to assert trademark rights,” Timberlake says. “It’s not a rubber stamp, but it’s somewhere between a rubber stamp and a full lawsuit in federal court, in that there are certain things the office is in the habit of recognizing as a pretty good indication [of trademark]. But they don’t go out and talk to people to test it.”
Uphold’s use of the phrase on its web site is already a “pretty good indication” that it merits the registration, Timberlake says. “If I’m the examiner and I look at Uphold’s web site, it looks to me like they’re getting good legal advice. The phrase is there, front and center, it shows up when you Google them. They look far along enough to get the registration.”
Nonetheless, Antonopoulos says he is, “consulting with legal experts to return the phrase to open use by invalidating the trademark.” Watson, for his part, tells Yahoo Finance he has no intention of suing anyone, and has been taken aback by Antonopoulos’s aggression. An article at CoinTelegraph last month said that Watson had “revealed his intentions to sue” Antonopoulos; that is incorrect.
Back in November, Watson shared and praised a blog post on Medium, written by “Captain Cloud Money,” an anonymous Uphold user, that argued, “Bitcoin fails as Internet money despite being an IP-based asset, because there is no central authority backing its value.” The post appeared to suggest an awareness that the phrase had previously been used to apply to bitcoin.
Even though the odds and the law favor Uphold, getting the registration is no foregone conclusion. Uphold already appends a “TM” to the phrase on its site, but anyone can do that. Once you get a registration, you get to use the “R,” which is the real indicator of protection. “For snooty lawyer types,” Timberlake explains, the TM symbol, “can seem like small potatoes. It doesn’t have any teeth.”
Uphold seeks teeth. But Andreas Antonopoulos is making it hard to chew. For the time being, Uphold can continue to use the phrase all it wants. And so can others.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.