Tuesday, February 5, 2013
For those teaching drafting (or contracts) this spring, James Daily, author of The Law and Superheroes, has a thorough analysis in Wired Magazine of the contract between Bilbo and the Dwarves from the movie, The Hobbit. A quick glance at the contract gives me ideas for a style-revision exercise.
Here's a sampling of Daily's analysis:
Two clauses describe Bilbo’s primary obligations:
I, the undersigned, [referred to hereinafter as Burglar,] agree to travel to the Lonely Mountain, path to be determined by Thorin Oakenshield, who has a right to alter the course of the journey at his so choosing, without prior notification and/or liability for accident or injury incurred.
The aforementioned journey and subsequent extraction from the Lonely Mountain of any and all goods, valuables and chattels [which activities are described collectively herein as the Adventure] shall proceed in a timely manner and with all due care and consideration as seen fit by said Thorin Oakenshield and companions, numbering thirteen more or less, to wit, the Company.
All contracts require some consideration from all parties to the contract. Consideration, in the contract sense, means a bargained-for performance or promise. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 71(1). Basically, this is something of value given or promised as part of the agreement. This can be anything that the parties agree is valuable; the classic example is a single peppercorn. Whitney v. Stearns, 16 Me. 394, 397 (1839).
Here, Bilbo is promising to go with the Company to the Lonely Mountain and performing various services there, including extracting the treasure, plus a few more services we’ll get to later. In turn, as we shall see, the Company promises to pay Bilbo one fourteenth of the profits, plus a few other obligations. Thus we have “a promise for a promise,” otherwise known as a bilateral contract.
There are some other details to notice in these clauses. One is the use of defined terms (e.g. “referred to hereinafter as Burglar”). The parties to a contract may define terms however they wish, even in ways that contradict the definition used in statutes or regulations.
This is important in this case because of the use of the defined term “Burglar.” Contracts to do something illegal are ordinarily unenforceable (e.g. collecting on an illegal gambling debt). But here what matters is not that the parties used the word ‘burglar’ but rather what sort of meaning they assigned to that defined term. As we shall see, the contract doesn’t require Bilbo to do anything illegal (or at least not obviously illegal), and so the contract will probably not fail for use of a questionable term.