What fiction can teach us about the law.
FORTUNE — Bilbo Baggins’ employment contract with dwarves in The Hobbit is five feet long when unfurled. Replicas of the actual movie prop—which really does contain all the legal verbiage—are being sold on Amazon for $39.50.
Attorney James Dailey offers a freakishly fascinating, highly detailed analysis of the contract at Wired. Dailey is the author of
The Law of Superheroes
, which takes on such questions as whether mutants would have civil rights and whether Batman could patent the Batmobile. That book is based on his blog, Law and the Multiverse.
This is all good, nerdy fun, and if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done. For instance, whether Baggins’ contract with the dwarves to be their “burglar” would hold up in court, given that burglary is illegal, something that in our world renders contracts invalid. But is it illegal to retrieve treasure from a dragon who stole it from you?
Dailey says he usually doesn’t take on topics “relating to fictional settings that are dramatically different from the real world in terms of their legal system.” So “Star Wars, Star Trek, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, etc. are usually off-limits because we can’t meaningfully apply real-world law to them.” But the Shire itself (Baggins’ home district) was modeled in part on England, home country of Common Law. And that was enough to make the contract worth Dailey’s consideration.
But it could be argued that just about any fictional world could be used to teach basic legal principles, even if only by contrast. The Star Wars prequels were filled with politics and law—to a fault, many critics complained. And Star Trek, after all, is just our world extended into the future—where democratic principles and the rule of law still hold sway. The United Federation of Planets looks a lot like the federal government, including the sometimes-mindless bureaucracy that frustrates James Tiberius Kirk so much.
But one can go even further—using, of all things, American sitcoms to teach legal concepts. That’s What She Said is a blog dissecting everything that happens on The Office. Presented by HR Hero, human-resources services firm, the blog has been running for years — since well before Michael Scott mocked one of his employee Kelly Kapoor’s Indian accent and got slapped for it. That happened during “Diversity Day” at the Dunder-Mifflin. The total liability exposure of that episode was about $800,000, the blog estimated when it aired nearly six years ago. These days, with Michael Scott gone, the employees themselves are often the ones stomping all over both propriety and the law, as when Dwight Shrute recently set off an insecticide bomb in the office.
All we need now is a blog devoted to landlord-tenant law based on The B in Apartment 23.