How you could sell a car in 2034 without a hefty contract

This article was originally published on LinkedIn as “How I sold my car in 2034“.

En Vauxhall bliver demonstreret af sælgeren

Prologue

Contracts are increasingly complex and difficult to navigate, even with recent efforts to simplify the language we use. Much of this is the result of efforts to express complex and interrelated legal and compliance concepts in words and since every legal writer has his or her individual style, the variations in contracts are staggering.

Recently one of my clients asked me for a single paragraph that somehow encapsulated a vendor contract. My response was that such a thing is extremely risky and not pragmatic. There is simply too much in a contract of that nature to adequately express in a single paragraph. Instead, I suggested a couple of options that streamlined the interface for the complete contract.

Later that night I thought about the request further and what it would take to create a “1 paragraph contract” for my client. I realised that such a thing would look very different to the contracts we have now. In fact, the path to a an effective contract that could be expressed in such a short form could lead to a radical overhaul of the broader legal and compliance environment that underpins almost everything we do.

Imagine that instead of expressing those complex and interrelated legal and compliance concepts in words, we reverse the process and establish a syntax to express those concepts more abstractly and yet in a way that still includes all that stuff the “fine print” is designed to cater for in our every day dealings? We could develop a new way of going about our business that doesn’t require lawyers writing pages of contracts that may still be susceptible to interpretational differences.

Going further, what if the way we contract ties directly into a broader contracts profile we all have from our first contract and which gives assurances as to what we can legitimately contract for? This is just the beginning of what could be possible. Legal frameworks could be developed, implemented and enforced programmatically. It would mean a radical transformation of the legal profession, possibly the end of much of the profession as we know it today. On the other hand, it would mean that people could go about their lives, dealing with each other with more confidence, far less uncertainty and without needing to spend so much on unintelligible legal fees.

The story below is a hypothetical scenario which should give you an idea of how this could work. Whether this scenario becomes a reality one day is another question altogether. I suspect that two developments will be key drivers: the so-called Internet of Things and cognitive systems like IBM’s Watson.

How I sold my car in 2034

I arranged to meet Andre on a sunny Sunday morning, 28 May 2034, to sell him my vintage car. I hadn’t met him in person before but I knew it was him because I received verification of his identity when we shook hands and sat down through an interaction between our CitIdents, the SmartNet and some or other authentication process my contract technician told me happens in the background. We met in a local teahouse and chatted while the waitron delivered our orders. Andre asked me about my run earlier that morning (my best time yet) and I congratulated him on his daughter’s latest masterpiece which he shared the night before. We then turned our attention to the deal we were about to make.

Andre kicked off the discussion with a quick data request to access the car’s entry in my Registry. He reviewed the car’s purchase and service history along with its logged mileage and general condition. It pretty much matched the data representation I posted with my sale ad the week before and he was also able to confirm that I was the car’s owner and entitled to sell it to him in the first place. He didn’t say anything but I suspect he also ran a quick valuation check through SmartNet to confirm my asking price was reasonable. This sounds like a lot but he finished his initial review in the time it took me to empty a sachet of sweetener into my tea and stir it.

He smiled and said he was comfortable with the car’s history and condition as well as my price. We exchanged data requests for access to the relevant portions of our contract profiles in our respective CitIdents (this has become standard practice when contracting these days). We both received confirmation that we had the necessary legal capacity to sell and buy the car (Andre’s verification included confirming with my bank that I have paid my vehicle finance and the bank had transferred ownership to me). Andre’s bank confirmed with me that he had sufficient funds to pay for the car on our agreed terms and established a payment link to my bank account for a one way funds transfer.

We decided, for the sake of tradition, to conclude our contract with a handshake. Our wrist tokens registered each other’s proximity as I said “I, Paul Jacobson, agree to sell you my car for our agreed price today.”. Andre smiled again and, in return, said “I accept your offer to buy your car today.”. With that our respective CitIdent’s registered the details of our agreement: the car being sold, our agreed purchase price, the current date and time as well as our verified identities. The SmartNet quickly polled our CitIdents for the further information it required to complete the legal and logistical aspects of our deal, advised the relevant local authorities so they could update their records and I received a data notification that the car had been removed from my Registry and transferred into Andre’s along with confirmation of the first of Andre’s payments.

We chatted a little more, finished our tea. Andre took a call from his partner and while he was chatting, I took a moment to review the transaction records newly associated with my CitIdent’s contract profile. Sure enough the sale was symbolically represented using the usual cheerful info-icons with the broad parameters of our transaction supplemented with the usual conditions, restrictions and permissions provided by the SmartNet’s latest contracts AI. The latest models finally introduced cross-jurisdictional compatibility between different regions’ contract models.

Andre finished his call, I sent payment to the waitron with a tip and thanked Andre. For a moment I couldn’t understand why the car didn’t respond to my proximity and unlock and then I realised it wasn’t mine any more. Senior moment. Since it was a lovely Autumn morning I decided to take a pod home and spend the rest of the day with my wife and children.

A Few More Thoughts About the @Woolworths_SA #HummingbirdGate Controversy

I thought I’d explore some of the legal themes that have emerged from this #HummingbirdGate story even though the story has since developed further and doesn’t seem to be quite what everyone assumed it was in the first place. Two major legal themes are copyright infringement and unlawful competition.

This last weekend has been an interesting one. The Twitter community seems to be convinced that Euodia Roets was ripped off by an unscrupulous Woolworths despite numerous statements and interviews by Woolworths representatives which have denied this and have pointed to a process which was concluded months before entering into discussions with her and which led to the product range Ms Roets contended was derived from her ideas.

What We Have Learned So Far

More information about this controversy has emerged in the last few days. Here are some of the things we have learned:

  1. Woolworths embarked on a process prior to entering into discussions with Ms Roets and signed off on their designs in November 2012;
  2. Woolworths representatives met with Ms Roets in early 2013 and even though Ms Roets gave Woolworths’ representative a sample with her hummingbird image, it probably would not have influenced Woolworths’ production process;
  3. Ms Roets’ hummingbird is very similar to a work produced by photographer, RW Scott in the late 1990s.

I thought I’d explore some of the legal themes even though the story has since developed further and doesn’t seem to be quite what everyone assumed it was in the first place. The recording below is a summary of the controversy and an outline of what I see as two major legal themes: copyright infringement and unlawful competition.

Before you read further, you should also listen to Jon Robbie’s interview with Woolworths’ CEO this morning:

Copyright Infringement

Many commentators have highlighted the copyright aspect of the controversy. Ms Roets highlights this in her blog post when she compares her drawing and the scatter cushion she came across in Woolworths (I included both images in my previous post). At some point someone pointed out that Ms Roets’ design looks remarkably like a photograph taken by RW Scott in the late 1990s and they are remarkably similar. This is RW Scott’s image titled “Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird”:

It is a beautiful image, as is Ms Roets’ version. If Ms Roets based her image on RW Scott’s image, her image would likely be classified as a derivative work. Assuming Ms Roets’ image is the result of sufficiently creative work on her part, it could also benefit from copyright protection despite the risk of her derivative work also infringing RW Scott’s work. Whether Ms Roets’ hummingbird infringed RW Scott’s copyright would depend on whether she had permission to use it as the basis for her work (assuming she used his work as the inspiration for hers). If she didn’t have permission (bearing in mind she was selling her hummingbird image, she probably can’t take advantage of exemptions to copyright infringement to escape an infringement claim), whoever owns the rights in RW Scott’s work could probably insist that she stop selling hers. Flowing from this, if Ms Roets copied RW Scott’s work without permission and if Woolworths copied her work without ensuring it had permission, then both Ms Roets’ and Woolworths’ works would infringe RW Scott’s. Again, making a number of assumptions here.

Interestingly, Woolworths said, in its statement, that it commissioned its version of the hummingbird from an artist in Durban in 2012. If that artist derived his or her work from RW Scott’s photograph and did so without permission, that would place Woolworths in a difficult position[1].

Unlawful Competition

Much of the commentary conflated copyright infringement with what people seemed most upset with: an unlawful competition angle. If Woolworths stole Ms Roets’ idea, that would probably fall under a class of unlawful competition referred to as a misappropriation of a competitor’s performance. In this case that could be the case if Woolworths used Ms Roets’ idea for a cushion bearing her hummingbird design. Given that she was selling her cushion and Woolworths intended selling its version, she would clearly be a competitor (even if not a particularly threatening one) and if Woolworths hadn’t come up with its own idea independently, using her idea to subsequently produce its own range could be a form of unlawful competition.

For this to apply, Woolworths would essentially have had to have copied the product of Ms Roets’ efforts without much additional effort of its own. For various reasons this doesn’t seem to have occurred but it is certainly an interesting, if hypothetical, aspect of this controversy.

Important Take-away

Something Woolworths’ representatives pointed to which is crucial (and will be increasingly important as more collaborative business models evolve) was how it documented every step of its production process and can point to specific dates and phases of its process of sourcing, developing and ultimately taking the idea to production. This sort of pedantic and legally motivated process isn’t very exciting and can slow a creative process down but it is in times like these that you would be very happy you took your lawyer’s advice to so this. I suspect the member of Woolworths’ legal team who insisted on this documentation process is the object of much gratitude and appreciation right now.


  1. This is why it is essential to include warranties and indemnities about copyright ownership in contracts with external providers. Those sorts of clauses are basically guarantees by the providers that they have sufficient rights to pass along to their client and will take responsibility if the client is later sued for copyright infringement.  ↩