Where is the predicted embedded legal knowledge?

By Nico Kuhlmann

After I finished reading „Tomorrow’s Lawyers“ by Richard Susskind a few years ago, a whole new and exciting world has opened up in front of me. A world of dramatically increased access to justice through information technology. In the last years, a lot of the predicted developments have become true. An easy and automated assembly of legal documents is not only available in law firms, but in many jurisdictions directly for customers as well. Different legal marketplaces on the Internet provide a transparency unknown before for clients and the European Union established their own platform for online dispute resolution.

But I am still waiting for the embedded legal knowledge!

Richard Susskind identified among others the embedded legal knowledge as one of the disruptive legal technologies that will transform the legal landscape. He wrote:

In years to come, in many dimensions of our social and working lives, I predict that rules will be deeply embedded in our systems and processes. Consider a car that warns its drivers and passengers that ignition will not work until a built-in breathalysing test is used and passed. This would not require car users to know the precise details of the law and then exercise the option of applying the law. Instead, the law that prohibits driving with excessive alcohol in the bloodstream would be embedded in the car itself.” (p. 46)

To be fair, there are a few minor attempts in this regard. In Germany and some other countries, cigarette vending machines are checking IDs electronically to make sure the buyer is old enough to smoke. The Eurion-Constellation on our banknotes is also quite successful. This pattern is recognized by copiers and results in the prevention of the duplication process. Thanks to this technology, it is already impossible to copy bank notes in colour (try it, if you don’t believe me).

But other than that, this is a field where significant development is still to come.

A North-American technology company registered a patent in the US last year for a copier that identifies copyright protected work and refuses to execute the duplication. To be precise, the claim of the patent covers a method for determining printability of an electronic file. The method is comprising of “electronically receiving a file for printing; parsing the file for one or more of text, images, and formatting indicative of potential copyrighted material; responsive to identifying any text, images, or formatting indicative of potential copyrighted material, identifying, potential copyrighted material within the file; and determining, whether the file may be printed based, at least in part, on the identified potential copyrighted material”.

Other areas of application are possible as well. Cars are an obvious example. The breathalysing test was already mentioned. In addition, a lot of cars inform their drivers, when they break the speed limit. Why don’t they automatically block the speedup at the legal limit? Is there a conflicting interest to speed worthy of protection?

Of course, there are some arguments against such embedded legal knowledge or „smart enforcement„, as the concept is known as well. But in a lot of circumstances, isn’t it easier and doesn’t it make more sense to build a handrail at the top of a cliff, than to station an ambulance at its button?