The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: Google

We don’t own the footprints

“The great irony is we don’t own the surface of the moon, so in a sense we don’t own the footprints” left by Apollo astronauts

In developments rather outside of my jurisdiction, NASA is seeking consensus with private space exploration companies (this alone proves we are in the future) over guidelines to preserve the historical artefacts they put on the moon during the previous century.

Google’s Lunar X prize includes a $20m award for landing a robot that can move 500 metres and send back images from the moon but with a $4m bonus “heritage prize” for landing near one of the Apollo missions. This means that about a dozen teams are actively aiming rockets at some of the most significant, and most fragile, relics of human progress ever.

Interestingly the law here comes from the Outer Space Treaty 1967, which is one of these UN treaties which you notice in footnotes when you’re a student and think is just a cool bit of Cold War trivia. The treaty means means that, because the surface of the moon has no owner, there is no authority which can tell private bodies to leave Apollo 11 alone.

Science mentions the experience of anthropologist Beth O’Leary who approached the US National Park Service trying sort out preservation guidelines and was told that the agency “did not have the jurisdiction to work on such guidelines.”. She provided the quote at the top in 2000. I suspect the change of heart must have something to do with Google putting up the ton of money.

There is likely to be a great deal of money in actual lunar artifacts — I hesitate to imagine how much someone would pay for the Apollo 11 lander module — but they remain extremely important relics for our species.

In the 20 July guidelines, NASA proposes that the Apollo 11 and 17 sites remain off-limits, with ground-travel buffers of 75 meters and 225 meters from each respective lunar lander. Furthermore, NASA simulations and footage from previous lunar missions led Kelso to conclude that 2-kilometer-radius no- fly zones over each site would prevent rocket exhaust from contaminating artifacts. NASA, however, would condone limited activities among the artifacts of other sites, according to the document.

H/T: Science, 2 September 2011, 1207-8

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Legal Websites and some thoughts

I believe there are two ends on the online legal resource continuum – sites can be inward looking or outward looking or some combination of the two. With inward looking sites being those intended for people studying, practicing or merely reading about law itself. The outward facing sites are for those affected by legal issues as lay people. The difference, is generally, but not always, simply the amount of evaluation and editorialising that goes on with the content and the approximate degree of separation from the original source material – inward looking resources are used by people who, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, have to tell a tutor, examiner or another professional that the dicta in paragraph X of case Y or that section a(b)(c)(i) of statute Z supports their position better than the other guy. Users of the outward facing sites simply want a reasonably straight forward answer to questions like “can I build a fence in my garden?”

Sites are not entirely one or the other, there’s a definite continuum online, but users of one kind may find themselves disappointed by the other. I quite like the soft edges of outward facing resources to gain a general, big picture analysis of what I should expect to find when I have a look at the source materials – I learned the basic provisions of the Unfair Contract Terms Act through consumer rights education while still at high school. It put me a good position when I studied statutory interpretation in my first semester of first year and needed to make some sense of the quite notorious piece of legislation. I find statutory interpretation very difficult – though not nearly as hard as statutory drafting – simply because there’s so many techniques, some modern and some truly ancient, to help you gain meaning from statute. Let’s not even mention Pepper v Hart which is distilled essence of “more hours researching in the library” wrapped up in a cute case name. Effectively knowing what I’m going to find is a massive crutch that will be awkward if it’s not there but certainly helps if you’re already just finding your feet. That means that reading sites that I’m perhaps not going to cite in my bibliography is still very helpful – the whole concept of academics is based on “standing on the shoulders of giants” and there’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants who write in simpler language. Being able to back it up in a more scholarly manner, which generally seems to mean by quoting like a man possessed, is the goal but comprehension is a infinite help in writing an essay.

The ultimate inward facing legal websites are obviously Bailii, HUDOC, Lexis Library, Westlaw and the rest of them – sites that exist to give you access to source materials. The commercial databases do a remarkable amount of what database engineers would call “input sanitising” – Westlaw US checks so thoroughly that it often sends source documents back to the courts that wrote them with errata, for example, but all remain initimately connected with the original text and are fairly hard going for someone without a legal background of some description.

Up from this very source level are sites where there is still heavy reliance on source documents but they are accompanied with editorial content – I particularly like eulaw.typepad.com for this sort of thing.

The next level up are what is effectively the online textbook. I’m actually unaware of anything that I would class in this category which is still very much material for those studying, and perhaps practicing – I was certainly pointed to my textbooks as the basis of a mooting submission and the advice seems very sound – law. I would certainly use it though, so I’d appreciate a pointer for that if any reader can think of one.

Beyond that is a marked distinction into those intended to “simply” provide an answer – the Wolfram Alpha to Westlaw’s Google, if you like. Writing high quality legal reporting at this level is a very different beast which requires a much more reader friendly approach, sites may not even mention the source material or if they do it’s in very vague terms – like the “Sale of Goods Act” (an act with 64 sections and 4 schedules) providing you with “statutory rights”, rather than talking about Part II ss.10-14 adding “implied terms” to “contracts of sale”. These sites are generally very easy and quick to read, and while they don’t really provide the sort of detail you’d get a particularly meritorious mark for at uni they will hopefully settle your legal issue quite straightforwardly. Sites like this are relatively numerous but are generally fairly specific in the material they cover – taking ukecc.net or gardenlaw.co.uk as examples. Consumer advice sites are most helpful, frankly, at this level.

Generally the simpler things are the hardest to write. It’s easy to read out a bit of statute, point to it and say “that’s the law” but it’s unexpectedly difficult to point a statute, decide what’s relevant, what it means in context and then decide if it helps. It’s not a flaw with legislation, it’s just a result of living in a complicated world. The harder material is still extremely hard to write but being able to explain concepts to someone without a background in the particular field – even intelligent people with skills in another field – is a bit of gift. For example I certainly know that a lot of medicine goes straight over my head, even though a reasonable amount of computing and an increasing amount of law won’t, and I need it explained to me in quite small words.

The Office Party

The current economic climate is bad for people looking for work, let me tell you, but it’s also eroding the perks for people who have one. One of the first casualties of the downturn is the office Christmas party. Presumably to avoid the cost of replacing the photocopier yet again many companies are either greatly downsizing or cancelling altogether their staff do.

The most interesting move I have heard of is that a recently bailed out bank has been reported to be paying its staff back for parties they have booked outside of work and are now ordered to not attend. I think that’s a strange move, especially because initially the staff members were supposed to absorb the loss themselves.

The staff party is just as much a carefully researched and cost analysed productivity tool as any machine in a factory – big companies are not known, generally, to throw money at things they don’t get a benefit from.

The reason that Google  famously gives its staff (now only programming staff) free meals is that it keeps them at their desks, where they can get work done, for increasingly long hours. It’s not a wish to feed the starving masses – it’s to have people who “just happen to be around the office so I did some work on Project X” for longer hours than usual , say if an employee is salaried for 9 til 5 but dinner is at 6.30 he could decide he may as well stay on till then.

Likewise the office party is useful because it’s a reasonably cheap way to, contrary to appearances, boost employee morale and thereby productivity. Happy staff are better with customers and better employee/customer relationships leads to increased revenue – it’s an accepted economic principle.

Apparently happy employees only make sense in a boom time. The party must go.

The writer of Single Guy Money reported the changes to his Christmas party:

• Instead of an open bar, we were given drink tickets. Each person was given 2 drink tickets while equalled 2 free drinks. You could drink more but you had to pay full price after your 2 free drinks. Luckily, I am pretty good friends with the ticket holder so I was able to score a few extra tickets.
• Our party was held in a large hotel in downtown Atlanta. In past years, the company would pay for rooms for employees that live more than 50 miles from the hotel. For those who lived closer but were not able to drive, you could get a reduced price room. This year, everyone had to pay for their own room (full price).
• Instead of a buffet style dinner, the food was mostly appetizers. In years past, they usually went all out with the food selection.

Compared to banks and political parties (who simply don’t want employees associated with them looking happy because they don’t want the public to think they’re enjoying our (well, Ken Dodd and my fellow students are taking a moral stand on this) tax bailout too much) that sounds extremely generous. Anyone who has had a wedding knows that the open bar is a quick way to spend a great of money and hotel rooms are expensive when you have to buy enough of them to not end up with harassment suits so these are pretty much common sense cost cutting measures.
It’s actually only when they’re compared to the year before that they become so stark, the fun isn’t spoiled, the concept of paying for your own drinks shouldn’t be alien to any one old enough to actually attend an office party and it doesn’t leave the company looking like it’s in desperate financial straights.

Frankly, if I was a director with millions of pounds of stock options that are on the knife edge of becoming much less I might even consider paying for those drinks myself. Is that not a rational economic choice?

Why don’t other companies follow this example? A company party which is obviously cut price or one which is entirely cancelled reflects badly on the company and will be received badly by the staff.

Isn’t company image and employee morale worth a few rounds of drinks anymore?