CPR’s International Conference: European Views on the Resolution of Complex Technology Disputes

By Tamia Sutherland

During the Oct. 6-7 CPR International Conference–the first the New York-based conflict resolution think tank and publisher of the CPR Speaks blog has held combining the work of its international advisory boards–CPR’s European Advisory Board presented a virtual panel centered around resolving complex technology disputes.

The panel discussed highly technical blockchain, patent, and intellectual property disputes. Mark McNeill, a New York and London partner in Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, moderated the panel that included:

  • Luke Sobota, a founding partner and Washington, D.C., managing partner at Three Crowns,
  • Edith Jamet, general counsel at SoftAtHome, a Colombes, France, software company, and
  • Mark Beckett, chief information officer at ArbiLex, an arbitration analytics and funding consulting firm based in Allston, Mass.

After introductions, Moderator McNeill posed a question about the resolution of blockchain disputes. Panelist Luke Sobota explained that blockchain operates as a fixed ledger stored internationally on computers world-wide, making the recorded data hack-proof as “the block exists everywhere at once, and nowhere in particular.” Though the blockchain is secure, it cannot anticipate every mistake or account for human error.

To illustrate what types of disputes may arise as a result of blockchain use, Sobota provided the following example: Blockchain technology can be used in commercial transactions by including a QR code with delivered goods that automatically transfers the payment from the buyer’s cryptocurrency account to the seller’s account, and records the transaction on a block when scanned by the recipient, also known as an oracle.

Sobota defined an oracle as “a real-world objective piece of data that the blockchain software, itself, can retrieve and verify.” This process does not require third-party involvement, and is “both the promise and limitation” of the technology, he said.

The oracle, however, can fall short. Disputes can arise when a recipient of goods fraudulently refuses to scan the QR code; the code has a bug that results in an excessive transfer of money; or the goods are partially damaged as there is no code for partial payment or refunds.

Due to blockchain’s decentralized nature, domestic courts do not have jurisdiction to resolve these transnational disputes, and sometimes, the parties are anonymous. Sobota explained that the two forms of arbitration best suited to resolve these unique disputes are (1) on-block arbitrations and (2) traditional commercial arbitrations.

On-block arbitrations are administered through various platforms and are currently “quite minimalist and only suitable to very simple transactions,” according to Sobota. In this case, parties agree that anonymous “jurors” will resolve the dispute, and the discrepancy is remedied automatically on the blockchain by issuing a new block.

For example, an on-block arbitration can immediately provide a refund for partially damaged goods. Panelist Mark Beckett mentioned Kleros, which is an example of an arbitration platform that relies on smart contracts and anonymized jurors to resolve disputes.

While this appears to be an easy and effective solution, questions about a lack of juror guidance, financial incentives, outside pressures, and concerns regarding juror consistency are critiques of the decentralized justice method.

Moderator McNeill then asked panelist Edith Jamet about the types of disputes she sees and how she prefers to resolve the disputes in her in-house role at a software company. She said she typically deals with patent issues. She said confidentiality is essential, and thus, mediation is best to find resolutions, and arbitrations are second best when the parties cannot come to a decision. She conceded, however, that sometimes court is mandatory and can be more secure.

Jamet discussed a mediation with the French tax administration where she had to demonstrate that her company’s technology was innovative and therefore eligible for a tax credit. Emphasizing Luke Sobota’s earlier point about finding sufficiently knowledgeable neutrals, Jamet said that she had to make an analogy to train tracks to illustrate her company’s technological software advancements because it was complex and she wanted the mediator to understand her arguments.

In response to an inquiry about the arbitration’s suitability for IP disputes, Mark Beckett raised skepticism about the number of neutrals who have technical knowledge. He noted that, in court, at least there is a right to appeal. Luke Sobota noted again that suitability depends on the neutrals chosen. In the case of typical IP contractual disputes, however, no special knowledge is necessary, said Sobota.  

Moderator McNeill asked Mark Beckett about ArbiLex, its mission, and what it can do. Beckett replied that ArbiLex is a legal technology startup that uses artificial intelligence and predictive analytics in international arbitration. The company provides practitioners and institutions with data to determine whether they should litigate or arbitrate a case. Ethics guidance states that lawyers generally cannot give a percentage chance of prevailing in a dispute due to predictive limitations. But ArbiLex is providing data for parties to assess the chances of prevailing in disputes.

Beckett explained that ArbiLex’s system can run combinations of different tribunals to provide outcome prediction analysis, provide information on who appointed certain arbitrators, predict case outcomes, relate outcomes to whom a particular arbitrator is sitting with, and provide data on how counsel has performed against each other. The information and graphics provided by ArbiLex, said Beckett, could cut down on the amount of research practitioners need to make tough decisions regarding dispute resolution of complex issues, where various interests may be pulling the practitioner in different directions.

Throughout the conversation, the neutrals that participate in CPR’s Technology Advisory Committee were mentioned as resources for finding technologically knowledgeable neutrals when these complex technology disputes arise.

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The author, a second-year law student at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., is a CPR 2021 Fall Intern.

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