Lawyers vs. Apps: A Grudge Match To The Death

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I like to give away lots of free legal information on this blog because I think it's important for artists to have a basic understanding about how the law interacts with them. I was once in your shoes. I've had my ideas stolen, my copyrights compromised, and been in situations where a little legal knowledge could have saved me from a jam or two. At the same time, you can't cut lawyers entirely out of the equation simply because you possess that knowledge. Legal information without analysis is just raw data. It can't give you advice or insight. It can't examine your specific situation and provide you with synthesized options based on that data (i.e. just because you know the fair use factors doesn't mean you know how to apply them). No two situations are the same and everyone's needs will differ depending on a variety of unforeseeable factors. Only a properly trained lawyer familiar with your circumstances will be able to navigate that minefield.

Such was my mindset when I wrote this review of Shake last Monday, a new app that allows users to generate contracts right on their iPhones without the need for a lawyer. I wrote that the app had promise primarily because it does something I support: bring clarity to the law. My exact words were, "Shake makes [contracts] easy to make, easy to read and best of all, short. By doing this, it incentivizes people to use contracts in their work, and anything  that gets artists thinking about their work from a legal perspective is a good thing." But the app had several larger issues that I found troubling; namely, the lack of flexibility provided by stock contracts and the ambiguous usage of the term "work made for hire" in the freelancer contracts.

Three days after my review posted, I found myself on the phone with Vinay Jain, the app's chief legal officer, talking about my concerns. The call was very productive and when I hung up 45 minutes later, the following was clear to me:

  1. Vinay was open-minded, thoughtful, and took my concerns seriously. Regardless of what he does with my input about the "work for hire" issue, I felt heard.
  2. He puts a lot of time and energy into researching contract law and making sure that the intricacies of different state laws are addressed in each of the agreements provided by Shake.
  3. The Shake team is committed to democratizing the legal transaction process by making it less intimidating.

In other words, I came away from the call with my reservations addressed and feeling deeply impressed by what the Shake team was trying to accomplish and the manner in which they were trying to accomplish it. The app certainly isn't perfect (what app is, frankly?), but there's room for growth, and it's pretty clear that growth will occur over the coming weeks and months. More important to me, Vinay assured me that the team behind Shake agree that their app cannot and should not be a replacement for lawyers. Per the app's FAQ page"We designed Shake to let you quickly record agreements for everyday transactions that you otherwise might do with a verbal 'handshake' agreement... Shake isn’t for complex or high-stakes transactions. Are you selling your company? Shake is not for that. You should talk with a lawyer. Are you selling your used computer on Craigslist or hiring a freelance designer for a basic job? Shake is perfect for either of those."

My hope is that if you use Shake, you use it as intended - to make quick and easy contracts where you otherwise wouldn't - not as an excuse to get out of hiring a lawyer just because of inertia or disdain (lawyers aren't very well liked in this country, in case you didn't know). A good lawyer isn't a black hole for your money. A good lawyer protects and elevates you. The people behind Shake seem to understand that, so I will support them.