There is a saying that whoever invented the ship also invented the shipwreck. The point is that new technologies can have their pros and cons, and some of both can be entirely unexpected. Technological innovations thus have always been a challenge for law—how can we facilitate the good while regulating away the bad, especially when we don’t have a full grasp on all of the goods and bads? But that also means technological innovation leads to legal innovation, and opportunity for lawyers to open up new fields of expertise. So, whoever invented the ship also opened the door for lawyers to invent shipwreck law!
The second major category of my student bar journal articles in the Law 2050 class was all about inventing the next shipwrecks with new technology and how law might respond. Like the topic of the first category of articles I covered—the sharing economy—student papers covered varied topics in thoughtful and insightful ways.
I could have used “dronewrecks” for my title, because a healthy number of papers looked at how we are going to take advantage of drones in various commercial applications without running into obvious problems like them crashing into homes and each other (and people). There is interest in applying drones for newsgathering, television and film production, law surveillance, and commercial delivery. A brewery in Minnesota used drones to deliver cases of beer to people ice fishing, until the FAA shut that down. Ah yes, the FAA—the agency is working on regulations for drones, which they refer to as “unmanned aircraft systems,” which the industry fears will be quite constraining of the new technology. States are entering the field as well. My students predicted a slow, incremental approach to easing in of drones under aviation regulation.
The same is true for the close cousins of drones—driverless cars and crewless cargo ships. Driverless cars, which some students covered last year, seem to be moving slowly toward market with regulation moving cautiously to let that happen. But crewless cargo ships? Well, why not? The EU and Rolls Royce are developing the technology, which raises all sorts of pros (lower labor costs, less environmental waste, no crew safety concerns) as well as interesting questions (job losses, cyber-piracy, runaway ships). Both the International Marine Organization and the insurance industry will have plenty of interest in how this develops.
Other topics covered in student papers, from tame to most out there, included:
- Bitcoins and other digital payments
- Regulation of 3D handguns
- Smartphone apps that allow the user to upload series of pictures to 3D printers, thus eliminating the need for CAD programs and allowing easy copying of sculptures and other forms
- 3D bioprinting of organs
- Organs on chips
- Commercial spaceflight
- Asteroid mining and other space property claims
- Neural implants
- My personal favorite—personal invisibility devices (don’t think they’re not working on them!)
The point of the assignment, of course, is to push students to think about law’s development in an entrepreneurial way. Although many of these technologies have a home in an established field (e.g., drones in aviation law; 3D printing in IP law), the established field isn’t a perfect fit and no lawyer is more of an expert on what doesn’t fit than anyone else. There’s no reason a recent law school graduate can’t bust into an established field on the crest of a new technology, outlining the challenges and proposing thoughtful legal innovation, to make his or her brand valued. Kudos to my students for taking that objective to heart and producing many excellent papers I’m sure bar journals would be happy to publish!