Based on some recent articles, a number of people have asked whether Bitcoin might be declared illegal under an archaic law known as the “Stamp Payments Act.” According to a recent Congressional Research Service report
, the answer is …. likely not.
The Stamp Payments Act of 1862 states:
Whoever makes, issues, circulates, or pays out any note, check, memorandum, token, or other obligation for a less sum than $1, intended to circulate as money or to be received or used in lieu of lawful money of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
It is questionable whether Bitcoin is an “obligation” and if so who is obligated. It is also not clear whether Bitcoin is a note, check, memorandum or token. The CRS report states:
It does not seem likely that a currency that has no physicality would be held to be covered by this statute even though it circulates on the internet on a worldwide basis and is used for some payments of less than $1. The language of the statute, “note, check, memorandum, token,” seems to contemplate a concrete object rather than a computer file; moreover, a digital currency such as Bitcoin, without a third-party issuer, cannot be said to be an obligation.
Of course, a clever legal mind can always develop a legal argument to the contrary.
One of the more famous cases brought under this act related to the Monongahela Bridge company which issued tickets (worth less than $1) good for one trip over the bridge. The court found that this practice did not violate the act, noting:
these tickets have no resemblance or similitude in shape, design or material, to the coin of the United States, nor to the postage currency, the free and untrammeled circulation of ·which it was the design of the act to advance and protect….They do not contain a promise to pay money, they are not the representatives of money, and therefore cannot be said to circulate, or be intended to circulate as money. Money is the medium of exchange among the people. Its peculiar characteristic is, that it is the one thing acceptable to all men, and in exchange for which they will give any commodity they possess.
Another interesting issue presented is who would be liable. To the extent that a Bitcoin miner “issues” a coin, as long as the price of a coin remains greater the $1, they would not seem to violate the express requirement of the statute that the token be less than $1. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Act did otherwise apply, to the extent that a recipient of a coin uses a partial Bitcoin for a transaction less than $1, then the feds perhaps could go after the user. But going after users who engage in transactions less than $1 does not seem to be a prudent or effective way to stop Bitcoin use. Assuming the vast majority of the transactions were valued at over $1 it would seem to be a pretty ineffective way to shut down Bitcoin.
If the Federal Government wanted to take action against Bitcoin, it would more likely take action to do so directly through new legislation (or perhaps some other existing legislation) rather than chance an iffy interpretation of an ancient statute that was primarily enacted for another purpose and which might only, at best, provide a basis to go after users in small transactions.