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BTC Core maintainer Marco Falke resigns

The small group of “maintainers” with commit access to the BTC Core code repository has shrunk yet again. This time it’s Marco Falke, who joined the group in mid-2015 and holds the record for the highest number of code commits: 2,524.

BTC Core is the reference protocol software that drives BTC. As such, it defines the fundamental rules for the way BTC functions. Those developers with commit access act as fiduciaries of the network and are considered stewards of the protocol giving them unilateral power to implement changes to the code that will be released as a BTC Core software update.

Falke posted a Twitter thread about his decision (his Twitter account is Private), saying:

“I have been the quality assurance and testing maintainer of Bitcoin Core for about 7 years now. In a challenging decision, I concluded to transition out of my role as maintainer.” He also thanked OKCoin and Paradigm, the companies that co-sponsored his most recent development funding grant.

Falke made 652 more code commits than second-place holder Wladimir van der Laan (1,872), one of the longest-service BTC Core maintainers. Wuille, who’d been on board since early 2011, is third with 1,527 commits.

Latest in a string of BTC Core departures

Falke joins at least five other high-profile BTC Core code developers who’ve announced they would resign from their commit-access roles in the past two years include: van der Laan himself (January 2021); Samuel Dobson and John Newbery (December 2021); Jonas Schnelli (October 2021); and Pieter Wuille (July 2022).

Those departing have cited personal health (“burnout”) and legal risks associated with BTC development as reasons for stepping down. One of these could include a lawsuit by Tulip Trading Limited (TTL), announced in 2021, concerning the potential return of over 111,000 unsplit Bitcoin stolen from a wallet belonging to Dr. Craig S. Wright in February 2020. TTL is seeking to have software developers formally recognized as fiduciaries with legal obligations to users.

A message thread on BitcoinTalk that began in December 2022, titled “Risk of jail for developers. Should you be anonymous?” looks at another potential threat originating from governments and central bankers. This particular thread focuses on activities to develop central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and other digital-only fiat currencies and whether blockchain-based digital assets might be targeted as competition.

While many over the years have scoffed at the idea of governments attempting to “ban Bitcoin” or “ban a piece of software,” the reality is that much of BTC’s US$470 billion market cap comes from the ability to exchange it for national currencies. Governments could, and at times do, apply pressure at several points in that process. With only a handful of commit-access code maintainers, there’s the potential to apply some of that pressure to individual developers, influencing how BTC functions.

Several past decisions by BTC Core developers have affected its viability as spending money. Limiting transaction block sizes to 1-4MB is a major one, since it only allows the BTC network to process about five transactions per second worldwide and keeps miner fees high.

What BTC Core ‘maintainers’ do

BTC Core’s GitHub site contains the open source code repository for the BTC protocol, and its contributor page ranks the top 100 contributors (noticeably absent from this list are Hal Finney and Satoshi Nakamoto—Bitcoin’s code was moved from SourceForge to GitHub after those two had departed from the project). Gavin Andresen, who had sole access to the codebase following Satoshi’s initial departure, is ranked #16 with 488 GitHub commits. Andresen’s commit access was revoked by other developers in 2016 following his public support for increasing Bitcoin’s transaction block size and because he publicly stated that he believed Craig Wright is Satoshi Nakamoto.

BTC Core is open source, and technically, anyone can contribute. However, the ability to commit changes (i.e., make alterations to the code that goes live as BTC protocol software) is restricted to a select group. The process of selecting this group is neither formalized nor transparent. Since BTC is not a company, there’s also no salary. However, the lack of a formal structure makes BTC a general partnership which does not give any of the partnership members any legal protection.

The BTC code maintainers have received six-figure grants that allow them to work on the project full-time—usually provided by companies with an interest in seeing BTC succeed. Donation pools from BTC-related businesses have shrunk in recent years, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is due to some (like FTX and BlockFi) collapsing and others finding less available cash to spare. WSJ notes that BTC code developer grants are still significantly lower than a mid-level engineer’s salary at a large company like Alphabet.

BTC developer funding sources include Jack Dorsey and his companies Block (NASDAQ: SQ) as well as Blockstream which was founded by Adam Back along with BTC Core developers Wuille, Greg Maxwell and Matt Corallo. Over the years, there have been several conversations over whether funding provided by Blockstream and others creates a conflict of interest or an expectation that BTC’s rules would favor their business activities. BTC Core supporters have maintained that developers can only provide code, and it’s up to a majority of miners to decide on what gets supported. However, past episodes, such as the mid-2010s “block size debate” and the 2021 introduction of Taproot to BTC, have demonstrated that miners themselves can be coerced into making the correct decisions following social media shaming campaigns and fears of being excluded from the network if they don’t update their software.

As for the original Bitcoin protocol, which still exists today as BSV, developers are paid but are also forbidden to make any fundamental changes to Bitcoin’s protocol rules. These rules are “set in stone,” and the code itself is the property of the Bitcoin Association for BSV, a Swiss non-profit organization.

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