Bitcoin Scripts

January 10, 2018

Table of Contents


In this post, I wish to describe a feature of bitcoin I wasn't immediately aware of until I started reading about Ethereum. Bitcoin comes with the feature of adding scripts that determine if some amount of coins are spendible.

Lets say Alice gives Bob 1 btc. In the transaction there is a script that must be executed and return True before Bob can spend that bitcoin. Normally the script will simply ask that bob sign the previous transaction (the one from Alice to Bob), and provide his public key. This ensures that the person Alice gives the bitcoin to is the one spending it. But there is a lot more you can do with these spending requirements.

Alice could perform a transaction to Bob and require Bob's signature and a third parties signature before Bob spends the bitcoin. Or there could be no requirement, and anyone could spend the bitcoin.

In a previous post I talked about proof of burn, and how that involves sending some cryptocurrency to an unspendable account. These scripts would be used to "burn" some bitcoin. You could have a script just automatically return false, or maybe it adds 2 + 2 and only allows the coins to be spent if the result is 8. Once a transaction is executed with an impossible script attached the coins are considered burned or stuck forever in the receiving account.

Etherum has built on this idea, and created a more built out language than the primitive scripting operators bitcoin provides. This allows for more complicated tasks to be performed for Ether to be spent, and also allows the scripts to access some outside data, leading to more uses.


The building blocks of these scripts are the opcodes bitcoin provides. Under the hood these exist as bytes assigned specific meanings, and perform simple tasks like loading data onto the stack, comparing values, and returning True or False.

A full list of the opcodes can be found on the bitcoin wiki (as well as a more indepth description of how scripting works).

A simple example is OP_0 or OP_FALSE. These opcodes do the same thing and simply push an empty array of bytes to the stack. The stack is where data is manipulated in this environment. A lot of opcodes will look at the top of the stack and perform some function based on what is there.

Constants can be added to the stack through OP_PUSHDATA1, OP_PUSHDATA2, and OP_PUSHDATA4. These look to the next 1, 2, or 4 bytes to get the length of the constant in bytes, and then adds the next specified length of bytes to the stack. So if you had a script that said

OP_PUSHDATA1 <0x01> <0x2A>`

it would see OP_PUSHDATA1, look to the next byte constant to see how much data it's going to push to the stack and see 0x01 or one byte, then it would push 0x2A to the stack, which is 00101010 in binary.

Standard Transaction

If you want to transfer some amount of bitcoin from your account to another and only want to allow the receiver to spend the bitcoin, then you would use this standard script.

First some opcodes that need explaining.

  • OP_DUP - duplicates the top stack item, and adds both to the stack.
  • OP_HASH160 - the top stack value is hashed twice, first with SHA-256 then with RIPEMD_160, then readded to the stack
  • OP_EQUAL - adds true to the stack if the two top stack items are equal, false if they aren't
  • OP_VERIFY - if top stack item is not true, then the script fails. Also removes the top stack item
  • OP_EQUALVERIFY - performs OP_EQUAL and then OP_VERIFY in succession. So if the two top stack values are equal, it continues the script. Otherwise the script fails.
  • OP_CHECKSIG - Takes a signature of all the transaction data, and the public key used for that signature, and confirms the public key matches the private key used to sign the data.

So the standard transaction looks like the following.

(On the bitcoin wiki, and here, some opcodes that push constants to the stack are omitted. So any point that has <data> implies there is an appropriate OP_PUSHDATA1 before it.)

scriptSig: <sig> <pubkey>

scriptPubKey is the part of the script the sender adds, and scriptSig is what the receiver adds. The script always executes the scriptSig part first, and then scriptPubKey second.

So if Alice sends Bob some bitcoin, the transaction will include the scriptPubKey data, and Bob will add the scriptSig parts, and they will be combined and executed.

For <sig>, Bob would take all the transaction data, hash it, and then sign it using his private key.

For <pubkey>, Bob would just use his public key.

For <pubKeyHash>, Alice would use the hash of Bob's public key.

The combined script looks like this.


Here is a breakdown of what the stack looks like while this script executes

  • First two constants are pushed to the stack.
  • OP_DUP duplicates the top stack item
  • OP_HASH160 hashes the top stack item.
  • <pubKeyHash> is pushed to the stack.
  • OP_EQUALVERIFY checks to see if the public key given matches the destination of the transaction. Fails if they don't match. (At this point, we know that the public key used to create <sig> is the same public key the bitcoins were sent to)
  • OP_CHECKSIG checks to see if the given signature was made using the correct transaction data, and with the given public key. (Now we know that the person spending these bitcoins has the corresponding private key to the public key of this address)

Burning Coins

So what if you wanted to send some coins to an address and make them unspendable. This is useful if you want to burn the coins, maybe for a proof-of-burn protocol to convert the coins into another cryptocurrency.

You would just make the scriptPubKey this.


The bitcoin wiki points to this transaction as an example of unspendable coins.

When someone mines this transaction, the coins are not added to the UTXO set. This is a set of all unspent transaction outputs. These coins don't have the potential to be spent, so they aren't considered "unspent".

By making sure the scriptPubKey is executed last, no matter what the scriptSig is, it will always end with OP_RETURN ensuring the scirpt fails.


One potential use of these scripts is to hold some coins in an account, and only allow them to be spent if some puzzle is solved. The scriptPubKey would specify the puzzle, and the scriptSig would have to put some data on the stack, that causes the scriptPubKey to succeed by leaving true on the stack.

There are some limitations with what you can do with the given opcodes, but a simple example would be to find the source of a hash. Again the bitcoin wiki points to an example of this transaction.

The scriptPubKey looks like this

OP_HASH256 <6fe28c0ab6f1b372c1a6a246ae63f74f931e8365e15a089c68d6190000000000> OP_EQUAL

So to spend these coins, you must create a scriptSig that puts some number on the stack, that when hashed with SHA-256, results in the given constant. Anyone is able to try this puzzle, and if they come up with a scirptSig that causes the scriptPubKey to succeed, then they get the bitcoins at this address.