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European Property Law Journal

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Property in Digital Coins

J.G. Allen
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  • Humboldtian Post-Doctoral Fellow, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin Großbritannien-Zentrum; Visiting Fellow, UNSW Faculty of Law, Sydney; Adjunct Research Fellow, University of Tasmania Faculty of Law, HobartBerlinGermany
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Published Online: 2019-05-17 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/eplj-2019-0005


Digital coins have burst into mainstream awareness recently, mainly as a result of high-worth ‘Initial Coin Offerings’ (‘ICOs’). The most immediate question in the legal treatment of digital coins is whether they are properly seen as digital ‘commodities’, and/or as ‘securities’, and/or as units of ‘money’. But the conceptual underpinnings of these categories are not clear, nor is it clear how these categories relate to each other; no legal system currently deals adequately with incorporeal objects as objects of property law. This category includes not only digital coins but also some forms of conventional money and securities. Establishing a satisfactory account of their treatment in property law is therefore a necessary first step to incorporating digital coins into private law theory. I argue that this task is best approached on the basis of a plausible ontology of incorporeal objects, including those embodied in paper (i.e. banknotes and conventional securities) and those that exist natively in ‘cyberspace’ (i.e. electronic ‘book-money’, modern securities, and now digital coins). We therefore urgently need to develop a plausible account of a how packets of data can be treated as an object of property rights. Using a comparative analysis of English law and Civilian law (particularly German) concepts of property as an entry point into this complex of problems, I explore the ontology of incorporeal objects and the role of documentation in their creation and maintenance as part of the ‘ontic furniture’ of our economic world. I explore the conceptual basis of property in digital coins in terms of a new category of property. Such a category is long overdue and will be increasingly important in the future.

The usual disclaimer applies—all errors are my own. All translations my own unless otherwise noticed. All URLs last accessed 4 March 2019.

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Published Online: 2019-05-17

Published in Print: 2019-05-13

Citation Information: European Property Law Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1, Pages 64–101, ISSN (Online) 2190-8362, ISSN (Print) 2190-8273, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/eplj-2019-0005.

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