Property rights in cryptoassets

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cryptoassets are a new category of digital assets secured by cryptography and distributed ledger technology. This thesis aspires to remove some of the uncertainties in the property status of cryptoassets by investigating whether cryptoassets are objects of property rights, what property rights exist in cryptoassets and whether the property rights are protected by the tort of conversion.
This thesis shows that English law recognises cryptoassets as property. Accordingly, they are objects of property rights. It is unclear, however, how to classify this property. As the thesis argues, cryptoassets (except central bank cryptocurrencies) are not money. Neither are they documentary intangibles or goods under the current law. This thesis proposes that cryptoassets which are functionally equivalent to paper-based documentary intangibles should be recognised as documentary intangibles. It is also proposed that cryptoassets which do not constitute money or documentary intangibles should be considered a sui generis category of property called ‘digital commodity’.
The thesis shows that, as the law stands, there are no possessory rights in cryptoassets because they are intangible. Although cryptoassets can be owned, it is uncertain who the owner of a cryptoasset is and how ownership of cryptoassets is transferred. This thesis argues that English law should recognise more property rights in cryptoassets and protect those property rights more robustly. In particular, it is argued that cryptoassets should be objects of possessory rights; that a person in possession of a cryptoasset should be presumed to be the legal owner of that cryptoasset unless there is evidence to the contrary; and that an on-ledger or off-ledger transaction should effect a transfer of ownership.
Finally, the thesis shows that while English law does not currently protect property rights in cryptoassets by the tort of conversion, it can and should extend the tort to cryptoassets.
Date of Award3 Oct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorChathuni Jayathilaka (Supervisor), Vaclav Janecek (Supervisor), Alan L Bogg (Supervisor) & Yvette Russell (Supervisor)

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