April 18, 2020

Common Form, Simplifiedpublish, share, save our souls

This post is part of a series, Common Form.

commonform.org is reborn again. Much, much simpler this time. It’s a trend.

Legal eagles can think of Common Form as a system for codifying forms and reusable snippets of private ordering like we codify public statutes. Publishing through Common Form associates a unique name, a number, and a permanent Web address to the work, allowing clients, drafters, and other forms and components to reference and share, knowing the terms will always be there and never change. The system handles numbering, formatting, organization, and combination of components automatically.

Technical folks who also read this blog can think “software repository for contracts”. Like a good package registry, commonform.org supports publisher accounts, projects, and versioning. Applications correspond to complete forms. Libraries correspond to form components, or snippets of legal text that can be reused in forms and other components. Once published, a form or component does not change.

The core Common Form proposition is publishing and sharing. So I am doubling down on Common Form as a publishing platform, rather than as a replacement for Microsoft Word or Google Docs. All of the data behind commonform.org now lives in a GitHub repository, which also contains code for generating the website. All of the legal content uses the simple typing conventions, based on the popular Markdown format, that I developed last year. The software utilities that understand those conventions—automatic formatting, numbering, technical verification, style critiquing—will be made available on separate, standalone site, probably edit.commonform.org, so folks can leverage them without installing anything.

Forms on the website can make full use of contract components, as well as renderers for Markdown, HTML, and Microsoft Word .docx. For example, the latest edition of Fairshake, my plain-terms consulting terms, sports a permalink and a list of links to download in various formats at the top of its page. The site generates all of that on its own.

I have also formalized the process of licensing work published through Common Form. There are two options to start: Creative Commons’ CC0 public domain dedication and a new, streamlined edition of my own law form license. I’m looking forward to exploring more license models in the future, including licenses that require a royalty when used to close successful transactions.

I can think of several friends and colleagues, many of whom have been Common Form tools users for years, who will want to dive in and publish via GitHub pull requests. But I’m also doing my best to welcome contributors who will want me to handle the technical details of publication for them. I’ve added a guide for new publishers to the site. I’ve set up a special e-mail address. I’m in the process of moving all my ongoing open form projects over to the site.

All of us involved in contract drafting see the waste. We see how little the basic rudiments of the craft have evolved since the 1990s. We aren’t sharing enough. We aren’t reusing enough. Drafting a new form for a client takes too much time in dull drudgery, which grinds down lawyers and runs up clients’ bills.

The answer isn’t software. It’s bringing lawyers who know better together, helping them to do better and hold each other up.

If you’re one of those lawyers, drop me a line.

more posts about: Contracts Drafting Law Practice Programming

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