Ulex: an Open Source Legal Framework

Originally posted on the Institute for Innovative Governance’s blog

What Can Lawyers Learn from Programmers?

What kinds of professionals spend their days reading, writing, and editing rules?  Two kinds: lawyers and computer programmers. Despite this fundamental similarity, however, they seem to live in different worlds.  That’s probably because lawyers mistakenly think that programmers don’t have much to teach them (and, as a consequence, because programmers try to stay very, very far away from lawyers).  In fact, though, lawyers could learn a lot from coders.

Computer code and legal code are similar in more than a few respects. Both declare operations to be performed under specific sets of conditions, attempt to create definitions that correspond to human activity, incorporate and revise previously-written code, and (hopefully) account for exceptional circumstances. While there are a great many differences as well, there may yet be an opportunity for cross-pollinating knowledge and experience from one field to the other.

Legal systems resemble pre-1970’s software in terms of portability and reusability. Much like how programs and operating systems were bespoke designed unique for each architecture, governance and codes of laws are currently crafted for each environment or government and unable to build upon each other, despite performing very similar functions.

Modern software developers are aware of the recent explosion of new ideas, experimentation, forms of organization and impressive decentralized projects that came with the introduction of suitable layers of abstraction and portability in the form of C and UNIX and later combined with the open source movement and the internet. By freeing programmers from having to rewrite operating systems that did more or less the same thing but with different interfaces, they could focus on actually writing programs, and even port those programs to different computer architectures without having to rewrite the entire application. Instead of writing code in an assembly language that was incompatible with all other platforms, the introduction of a higher-level language allowed programs to be transferred from one environment to another.

While some members of the software profession may take this wonderful state of affairs for granted in the digital realm, in the offline world they live under systems of laws and governance that are still waiting for a common framework, a standardized legal operating system, a basic foundation that hobbyists and experts from different countries and disciplines can openly collaborate on. Many of us may have vague desires and ideas of how to share the lessons learned from portable computer systems with the legal profession, though such ideas are likely worth their weight in gold Dunning-Krugerrands. Now however, a few in the legal profession have attempted to apply these concepts to law.

But first, an explanation of the problem: many people are unsatisfied with aspects of the governments and legal systems they live under, and most people have little agency to come up with their own improvements. There is a high exit cost to changing countries, citizenship, and governments. Improvements and refinements from one jurisdiction cannot always be easily taken and applied to another because of incompatible legal systems, different definitions, unintelligible languages, and jurisprudence. The overhead of experimentation can be great; each new government writes its constitution from scratch, comes up with court systems, has its own legislatures and judges, and so on. This limits the scope for the sort of healthy robust competition and innovation that has been seen in the world of software since the introduction of portable programs and operating systems, open-source development, reusable libraries, and collaboration on a global scale.

Perhaps you would like to create a new set of codes for yourself and like-minded individuals to live by. Maybe you believe laws or punishments are unfair or unjust, or you certain immoral or unsavory behavior should be curtailed. Taxes should go to fund socially useful schemes or taxes are too damn high. Freedom of movement is a basic human right or we need to keep the bad guys out. Whatever your vision, there are practical and theoretical ways of implementing it today, be it via homeowner associations, Special Economic Zones, setting up your own seasteading colony in international waters, founding a religion, or incorporating a new town. There exists a vast number of overlapping codes and laws that govern all people already, but they often lack a shared foundation of well-understood, time-tested common principles. Enter Ulex.

What is Ulex?

In a nutshell, Ulex provides a set of sane legal defaults including a simple system for resolving disputes closely modeled on the system commonly used to arbitrate international trading disputes. There are recommended basic modules for civil procedure, torts, contracts, and property that incorporate best practices as codified by organizations including the American Law Institute/International Institute for the Unification of Law’s (ALI/UNIDROIT’s) Principles of Transnational Civil Procedure, and selected volumes from The ALI’s Restatements of the Law.

Ulex 1.1 can be viewed as a template for creating a legal distribution. It references the contents of the legal packages from quality upstream maintainers, along with some system utilities in the form of meta-rules, optional modules for criminal law, procedural rules and substantive rules. This distribution should not be considered final, complete, or the best legal system for any new self-governing group of people, but rather a starting point for experimentation. Since not everyone who wishes to create a new society is well versed in legal history and modern best practices, having a jumping-off point with quality material curated by a law professor should be useful. Not everyone wanting to build applications may know how to design a working operating system, and they shouldn’t have to.

Creating legal systems by means of references other documents is a common and systematic practice, much in the way that software is rarely written from scratch but instead makes use of libraries of already packaged code. So too can legal distributions be created with a few well-thought references to systems that already work well and some legal wording glue to create a coherent system. Implementation is accomplished via contract law in the context of the host state, a necessary bootstrapping mechanism for now. Ulex version 1.1 includes an optional host sovereign integration module (section 5) if better compatibility is desired.

All that is needed for implementation is for parties to formally agree:

Only Ulex 1.1 shall govern any claim or question arising under or related to this agreement, including the proper forum for resolving disputes, all rules applied therein, and the form and effect of any judgment.

Ulex is not the final answer in self-organizing legal systems but a potential first organizing principle and base layer of abstraction upon which more varied and ambitious legal projects can be based. If a common template and minimum functioning system can be designed, the process and results can be embraced and extended around the world as people increasingly experiment with new forms and options for self-governance. With competing designs and implementations may come, eventually, more inspired and community-driven legal systems all developed in the finest tradition of open source development.

For future reading, the description of Ulex 1.1 is recommended.

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