Jul 042011
 
Standard Catalog of World Coins

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MONEY is accumulated, traded and transferred online every day, but can there be a form of currency that exists only online and yet has real-world value?

That is the premise of Bitcoin, an open-source virtual currency system that since 2009 has grown to a market worth more than $100 million.

But the past few weeks have shown that a virtual currency can be just as vulnerable as the paper kind. Bitcoin accounts have been subject to hacking and theft; the currency itself experienced a bubble and a crash. And at least one group that was collecting donations in Bitcoins has decided against using them because of possible legal entanglements.

Gavin Andresen, who is the lead developer of the open-source software that operates the currency, said in an interview from his home in Amherst, Mass.: “I expected it to have lots of speed bumps along the way — but I didn’t expect there to be so many speed bumps in a row.”

There are several appeals to the idea of an online currency. The standard way to ensure the validity of online transactions, according to Jerry Brito, a technology expert at George Mason University, is “to have an intermediary to keep the ledger,” that is, a service like PayPal or a credit card company that takes a percentage of the transaction.

A virtual currency would not need an intermediary. It would also make it harder for authorities to track transactions (particularly appealing for gambling sites or other quasi-legal activities).

Bitcoin began as a kind of thought experiment. In 2009, an anonymous programmer published a paper proposing a virtual currency that would elegantly solve many of the problems surrounding currency that exists only on the Internet, including the main one, that the money would simply be copied like, say, music files, and plummet in value.

Another part of the challenge was to create a currency without having to resort to a central bank to issue the currency and track the transactions. In other words, the transactions would be genuinely “peer-to-peer” rather than pass though a virtual bank.

The solution of the Bitcoin programmer, who wrote under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, was to ensure that each “coin” was its own certificate of authenticity — that the coin, in essence, would be nothing more than that certificate.

In the Bitcoin system, a new coin is produced whenever a computer can calculate an answer to a difficult problem, and then attaches that answer to a digital record of every transaction of every Bitcoin ever traded — a breathtakingly large amount of information to carry around in order to buy a pack of gum, but in a time when information can zip around the Internet, not too much to ask. Anyone would be free to create a new coin, within proscribed supply limits, by having a computer do the work needed to prove that it was in fact a valid Bitcoin.

“The incentives are right, they are a check that everyone is following the rules,” said Mr. Andresen. “Early adopters want it to succeed, because they already own the currency. And if you generate Bitcoins no one thinks is valid, you have wasted a lot of computer time.”

In fact, Bitcoin is a rarity for a currency in that it is neither a so-called fiat currency — one like dollars, which are valuable because the government says they are — nor is it a specie currency, one that gets its value because it can be converted into a precious metal like silver or gold.

But why would a Bitcoin have value if it is only a stream of numbers, unsupported by government fiat or by some underlying asset?

“Why does any tool have value?” Mr. Andresen asked. “It is valuable because it is useful.”

Starting almost as soon as the coins were introduced, they have been traded for dollars at online exchanges, serving as a crude measure of the currency’s popularity and health (and also giving a market where owners can trade in Bitcoins for real dollars).

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