Legal Engineering on the Blockchain: ‘Smart Contracts’ as Legal Conduct
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A new legal field is emerging around blockchain platforms and automated transactions. Understanding the relationships between law, legal enforcement, and these technological systems has become critical for scaling blockchain applications. Because ‘smart contracts’ do not themselves constitute agreements, the first necessary ‘legal’ development for transacting with these technologies involves linking computational transactions to natural language contracts. Various groups have accordingly begun building libraries of machine readable transaction modules that correspond to natural language contracting elements. In doing so, they are creating the building blocks for ever more complex transactions that will ultimately define the entire envelope of computational legal conduct in these environments, and likely standardise the field. However, also critical to emerging blockchain ‘legalities’, is the capacity for dispute resolution and legal enforcement. Beyond the performance of parties, or the quality of goods and services transacted, new mechanisms are also needed to address the performance of the computational transaction systems themselves. Such mechanisms are necessary to address the reality that smart contracts cannot be forced to perform actions beyond the parameters of their coding, even by a judicial order. Legal tools, both technological and institutional, are thus being developed to ‘soften’ the effects of self-executing transactions. In this article we treat these developments as law-making practices that are constitutive of an emerging legal field. Legal engineering exercises of this kind are not novel, and by drawing on historic examples from the common law and international arbitration, we gain insights into the competitive dynamics likely to be shaping legal engagements on the blockchain.
KeywordsArbitration Automation Blockchain Dispute resolution Emerging norms Jurisdiction Law and technology Legal standards Platform law Smart contracts
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