Tag Archives: Blockchain

An introduction to smart contracts

In a previous article, we have written about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and contracts. AI is having an impact in three areas when it comes to contracts: 1. contract review, 2. contract management and automation, and 3. smart contracts. While smart contracts are automated contracts, what sets them apart from other automated contracts is the usage of Blockchain technology.

What are smart contracts? We’ll combine elements from the definitions Tech Republic and the Investopedia to explain: A smart contract is a software-based contract between a buyer and a seller. The software automates the business processes and the conditions of fulfilment contained within the contract. The code programmed into the contract actually makes the contract self-executing so that it takes action whenever a specific condition is triggered within the contract. The code and the agreements contained therein exist across a distributed, decentralized Blockchain network. Smart contracts permit trusted transactions and agreements to be carried out among disparate, anonymous parties without the need for a central authority, legal system, or external enforcement mechanism. They render transactions traceable, transparent, and irreversible. Because the smart contract is software capable of automating business processes and contract fulfilment automatically, it eliminates the need for managers and middlemen supervision.

Let’s give an example: A is a supplier of products for B. Every month, B places an order with A. It makes sense to automate this process. The smart contract is a piece of software that, e.g., would contain the code that says if an order is received by A from B, and B is not in arrears, then that order must be executed. Now, with smart contracts these transactions are typically registered in a distributed, decentralized Blockchain network of ledgers. In a previous article we explained that Blockchain is a technology that registers transactions in a ledger, where everybody in the network has a copy of that ledger. Transactions are secured by using a verification code that is calculated based on all previous transactions in the ledger. In essence, to forge a transaction, one would therefore have to forge all registrations of all transactions in all ledgers.

The benefits of smart contracts are clear: the whole process of transactions between parties can be automated, and by using Blockchain technology one has virtually irrefutable proof of the transactions. Add to that that programming code tends to be less ambiguous than the generic legalese of traditional contracts, so the chances of disputes about the interpretation of smart contracts are smaller.

The usage of smart contracts is expected to grow fast. A survey published in Forbes Magazine predicts that by 2022, 25% of all companies will be using them. Basically in any market where Blockchain technology is useful, one can expect smart contracts to be useful, too.  Smart contracts can also be the perfect complement to E.D.I. At present, smart contract applications are already being used in – or developed for – supply chains and logistics, in finance and securities, real estate, management and operations, healthcare, insurance, etc.

Still, one has to be aware of the limitations of smart contracts, as there are a number of legal issues to take into account. The name ‘smart contracts’ is misleading in that they aren’t really contracts but software. As such, there are legal concerns with regard to:

  • Offer and acceptance: is there even a binding contract, if there is no human interaction or supervision, and the transaction is completely executed automatically?
  • The evidentiary value: smart contracts are not written evidence of agreed rights and obligations because they encapsulate only a portion of any rights and obligations that is related to contractual performance
  • Jurisdiction: is the area of jurisdiction clearly defined in case of a conflict or dispute?
  • Dispute Resolution: are there any dispute resolution mechanisms in place?

When considering working with smart contracts, it is therefore a good idea to first come to a framework agreement in which these issues are addressed. And those will preferably still be written by lawyers.

 

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Blockchain and the Law

In our previous article, we explained what Blockchain is. In this follow-up article, we look at how it is pertinent for lawyers. In short, it is relevant in two ways: on the one hand, there are the legal aspects of using Blockchain: Blockchain is changing the way things are done in several industries, and lawyers active in those fields should be prepared for that. On the other hand, there already are new legal applications, like e.g. smart contracts, that are built on Blockchain. We can expect many more of those to come.

Legal aspects of Blockchain

A lot of the work lawyers do, has to do with helping to facilitate the secure transfers of assets. Blockchain was developed for exactly that purpose: it creates real-time digital records that verify and confirm that the transactions, detailing such transfers of assets, did happen at a certain time, and in a specific order. In other words, Blockchain offers proof that at present is as good as irrefutable.

In his book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business and the World, Dan Tapscott states: “anything of value – money, but also titles, deeds, identities, even votes – can be moved, stored and managed securely and privately. Trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code rather than by powerful intermediaries like governments and banks.”

Blockchain has already started disrupting markets, and is expected to affect many more industries. In fact, it has the potential to affect most of them. The most obvious example is the world of finance, where Bitcoin and Blockchain started. Thanks to Blockchain, virtual currencies are a reliable alternative to traditional currencies. Blockchain is also being used in post trade settlements (Securities). Intellectual property, too, is a prime candidate for a Blockchain overhaul: applications are already being developed with regard to digital rights management which will affect music, eBooks, and other online content you purchase or rent. For trademarks, too, Blockchain technology can prove that a certain trademark was registered by a specific party at a specific date. Applications that rely on the Blockchain technology are being developed for real estate (transfer of title deeds), health care (patient data), insurance, energy (peer to peer market for energy), digital voting, gambling, etc.

If you, as a lawyer, represent clients in Blockchain-affected industries, you’ll need to get acquainted with how Blockchain affects those industries. Doing it early offers a competitive edge, as you become a greater resource as trusted adviser to your clients.

As Blockchain is changing the way business is being done, we can also expect the law to start regulating the use of Blockchain. A recent example of this was in the US, where the SEC made a ruling on 25 July 2017 in a case of an ICO, i.e. an Initial Coin Offering:  instead of launching an IPO (Initial Public Offering), a company wished to raise capital using a cryptocurrency instead of US dollars. The SEC ruled that “federal securities laws apply to those who offer and sell securities in the United States, regardless whether the issuing entity is a traditional company or a decentralized autonomous organization, regardless whether those securities are purchased using U.S. dollars or virtual currencies, and regardless whether they are distributed in certificated form or through distributed ledger technology.”

Legal applications using Blockchain

One of the areas where Blockchain is expected to make great strides is ‘smart contracts.’ OpenLaw, e.g., is a joint US and Swiss project that is working on a smart contract platform that will allow lawyers to make legally binding, and self-executing agreements. The platform uses Ethereum, which is an alternative to Bitcoin but is also built on Blockchain. In a first step, lawyers can choose one of many contract templates that can then be further customized online. If the parties for whom the contract is made agree, they can confirm and activate the contract on the Ethereum Blockchain, and then have the contract self-execute its key agreements via the same Blockchain.

Smart contracts are expected to start pitching up everywhere. For this reason, on 15 August 2017, a new legal Blockchain consortium, called the Global Legal Blockchain Consortium (GLBC), was launched. An array of law firms and leading legal tech companies are involved, and their goal is to discuss and consider the issues around the use of Blockchain and smart contracts.

All of this creates new opportunities for lawyers: your law firm can become a Smart Contract Firm, or a Smart Contract Mediator, and/or a Smart Title Company. Individual lawyers can become ‘Distributed Ledger Lawyers’ who are Blockchain law and policy advisors.

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An introduction to blockchain

You probably have heard about Bitcoin, and you may have heard about the underlying technology, Blockchain, too. But, if your clients asked you what Bitcoin and Blockchain are, could you explain it to them? In this first of two articles, we’ll explore what Blockchain is. In a follow-up article, we will look what its relevance is for lawyers.

Bitcoin is probably the best-known cryptocurrency. A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that uses encryption techniques to a) regulate the generation of units of currency, and b) to verify the transfer of funds. What is important about these virtual currencies is that, unlike regular currencies, they operate independently of any government or central bank. Blockchain is the technology that was developed to make this possible. And the technology has the potential to revolutionise the way we do business.  Some experts even predict that Blockchain will replace the Internet for doing business online. Add to that, that Blockchain technology is not just useful for virtual currencies. Many other uses are possible, including legal ones like self-executing smart contracts.

To understand what Blockchain is, it is necessary to understand why it was created in the first place, and that is to solve the problem of “double spend”. If I go to a bookstore and buy a printed book, the book is physically transferred from the bookstore to me. The bookstore no longer has that copy, I have. And it’s possible for the bookstore to run out of copies. But if I buy an eBook online, things are different. What I get is a copy, and the online bookstore I got it from can still sell an unlimited amount of copies. Digital products can be copied, infinitely. And that creates a special problem for digital currencies. What prevents me from spending one amount of 20 € three times, online? In this example, the bank does: if I go to an online store and spend 20 €, the bank will take that amount off my account and hand it over, often through intermediaries like credit card companies, to the store owner. But the whole purpose of Bitcoin was to be able to operate without any central bank or government. So, how can we make sure one Bitcoin isn’t spent more than once by the same owner? Blockchain is the technology that was invented to solve that problem. The way it is done, is by creating a secure register or ledger that keeps track of all transactions, and of which copies are distributed over a peer-to-peer network.

Blockchain can be described as a distributed ledger technology (DLT) that consists of a distributed data structure and algorithms, which create a decentralized ledger or registry of transactions, which is both permanent / immutable, and secure.

A distributed ledger technology

Instead of keeping one central register or ledger, Blockchain consists of a decentralized network of volunteer-run nodes, each of which keep an identical copy of the register. (The idea was that, to work with bitcoins, you need a bitcoin wallet, and every owner of a wallet should have a copy of the register). Each transaction that is registered gets a timestamp, and the network uses algorithms that ‘vote’ on the order in which transactions occur, and ensures that each transaction is unique.

Blockchain is secure and permanent / immutable

“Once a majority of nodes reaches consensus that all transactions in the recent past are unique (that is, not double spent), they are cryptographically sealed into a block. Each new block is linked to previously sealed blocks to create a chain of accepted history, thereby preserving a verified record of every spend.” (ZDNet). This ‘cryptographic sealing’ uses hash functions and digital signatures that work in one way only. Let’s take an example: on 4 August 2017, at 8:15:0000 AM UCT, wallet X transfers 1 bitcoin to wallet Y. Just as is the case with an online money transfer, this information is structured in a specific way. To that set of data, a one-way encryption is applied, that is irreversible. The result of the encryption is a unique string, let’s say, fictitiously, W(#MD31NAP^FV12. It is impossible to read from that string who paid what to whom. But if X claims he paid Y 1 bitcoin on 4 August 2017, at 8:15:0000 AM UCT, to Y, then the ‘key’ will have to be W(#MD31NAP^FV12. So, if that key is found in the ledger matching that timestamp, it is irrefutable proof that indeed that transaction occurred in that way. If X claims he paid 2 bitcoins, then the key would be different.

Blockchain uses ‘consensus algorithms’ to make sure each transaction is unique, which is needed in case of conflicting data. Because of the algorithms it uses, Blockchain comes as close to being unhackable as currently is possible. And while there have been instances where Bitcoin was hacked, Blockchain itself, i.e. the underlying technology, has not. Still, the consensus mechanism has one inherent risk, which has been called the 51%-problem. The nodes in the network vote by majority. If a hacker would succeed in taking over 51% of the nodes in the network, then he could start manipulating the votes to change records, i.e. replace them by modified ones. It would still be a hard thing to accomplish, extra security mechanisms have been built in. Which leads us to the next item.

Blockchain is permanent and immutable: each block of data in the Blockchain is time-stamped, and can only be added to the chain after the time stamp is applied and verified by the distributed computers across the chain. The practical effect of this is that a block of data can never be changed retrospectively, as all subsequent records would have to be modified as well.

Blockchain has many advantages: its decentralization makes it independent and secure. Because the whole process is managed by algorithms and no human interventions are necessary, the transaction fees are lower, and transactions themselves can be conducted more quickly.

In short, Blockchain technology has the potential to disrupt several markets, and lawyers will have to be prepared for that. There already are legal applications for the technology, as well. We will have a look at all of that, in a follow-up article.

 

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