In the quest to imagine and build a new “sharing economy,” one factor that is often overlooked is law. What shall be the role of formal law in a world of social enterprises, shared workspaces, cohousing, car-sharing groups, tool-lending libraries, local currencies and crowdfunding? Who has legal rights in these various contexts, and what do they look like? Who holds the legal liabilities?
These questions are sometimes ignored by commoners who consider the law a retrograde, irrelevant force to be avoided. But even among those who acknowledge the inescapability of conventional law, the contours of legal rights and liabilities are not always self-evident because the law tends to be silent about commoning, or construes such activities in archaic legal categories. The law as it now stands presumes that we are either businesses or consumers, employers or employees, or landlords and tenants. Production and consumption, and investment and usage, are "naturally" considered separate activities pursued by different people.
But nowadays countless activities in the sharing economy are blurring old categories of law. There may be many parties involved in managing a a workspace, childcare facility or online information, or perhaps many people have ongoing relationships and responsibilities and entitlements that are collective and evolving. Should the strict letter of the (archaic) law necessarily trump our informal, self-negotiated social rules?
Janelle Orsi, director of the Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, has tackled these and many other such questions in a terrific book, Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy: Helping People Build Cooperatives, Social Enterprise and Local Sustainable Economies (ABA Publishing). The book covers a monumental array of legal topics that are relevant to the sharing economy. Most of the chapters deal with how to craft agreements that validate special forms of sharing – for example, how to form organizations, how to exchange with each other and how to invest in each other’s work. There are also chapters for shared working arrangements, mutual provisioning, sharing rights to land, sharing rights to intellectual property, and managing collective risks.