The Law of Unintended Consequences

Every year between March and June I teach Law and Information Technology two evenings a week at Auckland University Law School. When I was asked to take on the class in 2000 after the departure of Mark Perry from the faculty, I thought that it would be about  five years before other courses absorbed most of the issues that seemed to be “new”. Issues of Internet Governance would become part of Public Law, Internet Jurisdiction would fold into Conflict of Laws, Computer Crimes would become part of the Criminal Law paper, whether the postal rule applies to email contract formation would become part of contract, Internet Defamation would fall into Tort or Media Law and so on.

But no….I was wrong, and I am pleased to say that the course continues. It continues to develop. In 2000, Napster was going strong. Now we have the graduated response rules to address file sharing. Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented. Google wasn’t around – other search engines like Altavista, Dogpile and Hotbot were the places to go to find stuff. So in many respects the course changes as new technologies, apps and protocols come on stream and raise questions that involve or impact upon legal principles. The teaching year ends in June with examination marking, but teaching doesn’t end there.

One of the other aspects of my relationship with the Law Faculty is the supervision of dissertations and this involves one on one contact with a student and the chance to help ideas develop and critique them as the dissertation takes shape. There have been all sorts of topics. One of the early ones was whether US contributory copyright infringement formed part of New Zealand law. The conclusion was that it didn’t and following from that Napster should have located its servers in Aotearoa instead of San Jose, California. Recently I had the pleasure of watching ideas about the imposition of a consumption tax on on-line goods (in Second Life or World of Warcraft) develop – that was very interesting and reminded me of one of the underlying themes in Neal Stephenson’s Reamde.

A third aspect of teaching is the chance to watch one’s students fly. There have been occasions when former students have appeared in my Court, as counsel of course  – always punctual – they remembered the first lecture! In June and August I had the enormous honour of sharing a stage with two former students who were presenting on aspects of Technology Law for the New Zealand Law Society. I salute them all.

In the movie Dances With Wolves the Lakota, Kicking Bird, would express joy with the phrase “my heart leaps to see you” and although its is not clear whether or not he had read Wordsworth’s Rainbow it is a sentiment that I share on occasion, although at my age one has to be careful that the heart doesn’t leap too high or it might not come down! But there are occasions when my heart leaps – often in association with achievements of my students or former students and this week has been one of them.

Three of my students from class this year (two ladies and one man) are front of camera on a video called “Defined Lines” and another of my students filmed the clip. It is a parody originally performed at the Law School Revue – a fertile breeding ground for humour, satire, edgy skits and some really clever performances. In fact when one considers that Law School is designed to teach one to think like a lawyer (in some circles this is called brain washing but never mind) it is clear that there are some serious areas of free thinking and creativity alive and well in the minds of law students. Long may that continue. But then, don’t forget that it is often said of litigators that they are frustrated actors who are constantly on their feet before an audience.

“Defined Lines” as I said is a parody. It is also rapidly becoming something of a feminist anthem, given that, as at the time of writing this piece, it had nearly 1.5 million hits on You Tube – and it has been up only a week. It is sassy, a tad raunchy, slightly edgy but a whole lot of fun, and I get the sense that everyone involved – and I mean everyone – really enjoyed themselves.

But along with 1.5 million hits comes a bit of a problem. It isn’t enough for a video to go viral but there are other unintended consequences – like the media gets interested. So far the story of “Defined Lines” has featured on New Zealand TV and has been mentioned in other countries. There has even been legal commentary on the copyright implications from Rick Shera (@lawgeeknz). The story has spread virally among news media and blogs and @LawRevueGirls already have quite a following on Twitter. And I understand that the requests for interviews and commentary continue. We  talked about the viral nature of content as a unique property enabled by the Internet in class, and I think that the message has come home with a vengeance. But the deeper message that they put out is an important one and I am willing to bet that @LawRevueGirls didn’t expect that they would get quite the audience that they now have.

So my heart leaps for them, and it is a great joy to see them fly. You really go, @LawRevueGirls.

But that ain’t all. The Law Revue produced another neat piece of video parody of Snap Chat called Smack That. You have to listen very carefully to the lyrics because they tumble out like a waterfall, but this too is a very clever piece of work. So wonderful to see such creativity. What exciting times we live in.

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