Bikeshares and Liability: Answering the Sharing Economy's Legal Questions

As the sharing economy continues to grow, questions about regulation, liability, and the economic value of ownership are cropping up.

In the last several years, consumers have watched as the sharing economy has grown from the province of hippies and moochers into the domain of multi-million dollar businesses. No longer limited to grassroots, ground-up organizations, businesses like Airbnb and RelayRide are fast becoming real competitors for customers that might have otherwise gone to conventional hotels or car companies. Some large, established corporations, like General Motors, are even jumping on the sharing train in attempts to stay relevant in the 21st century. As our resources become scarcer and our cities and living spaces become more tightly packed, there is little reason to think the momentum behind sharing, on all levels, is going to slow down.

But as the sharing economy continues to grow, questions about regulation, liability, and the economic value of ownership are cropping up. And because of the relative novelty of things like ridesharing and social enterprise, the answers have not always been readily apparent. Enter Janelle Orsi, Oakland-based attorney, co-founder of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, and one of the first lawyers to focus her practice on sharing law.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley Law School in 2007, Orsi looked beyond the well-trod path of representing gigantic corporations in favor of not only opening a solo practice, but going even further by essentially devising an entirely new area of legal practice: sharing law. On a typical day she could be helping a city create its own currency, launching a campaign to pass the California Homemade Food Act, or helping a new business find its startup capital through crowdfunding. "Helping people share seemed like the best path to a more economically just and sustainable world,” Orsi says. “There is no better way to empower communities than to help them to form cooperatives and to share housing, cars, household goods, childcare, and other necessities. And what better way to reduce our ecological footprints?"

This summer the American Bar Association published her book, "Practicing Law In the Sharing Economy," the first-ever legal treatise on sharing law. Many people don’t realize that behind most successful business there is a cadre of hardworking, sleep-deprived attorneys making sure everything runs smoothly. With chapters on the formation of sharing businesses, creating local barter systems, and new approaches to intellectual property, Orsi’s book provides attorneys all over the country with the necessary tools to help sharing clients, from standard employment contracts to explanations of complicated issues like tax law and intellectual property.

The last time I spoke to Orsi she told me had so many new clients coming to her, she was starting to turn them away. Thanks to her new book, attorneys everywhere can now begin to incorporate sharing law into their practices.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user bengrey.