Electronic Bills of Lading: A Never-Ending Story?

David A. Bury | Comment

Over the last few decades, computer software and web-based operations have sparked the rise of paperless transactions, shaping how
people communicate, organize information, and do business. However, the shipping industry has failed to catch on. For years now, legal maritime commentators have urged the shipping industry to embrace electronic technology expeditiously. 2 Regardless, paper documents continue to thrive. International trade transactions consume millions of paper documents every day, meaning the shipping industry pays hundreds of billions of dollars annually to perpetuate an increasingly
antiquated system. Why? The culprit is the negotiable bill of lading, and the answer lies with how the law has evolved for centuries to conceptualize it as a transferrable piece of paper. The bill of lading serves an invaluable function within international trade, and industry efforts to dematerialize it throughout the last thirty years have patently failed. However, the possibility of merchants making increased use of electronic bills of lading is not without merit, and the prospect raises major legal
implications relevant to practicing maritime attorneys. This Comment attempts to understand why, to date, the shipping industry has failed to transition to electronic bills of lading, notwithstanding the collective optimism of maritime law commentators, and whether electronic bills of lading have a chance at gaining traction in the near future.


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Citation: 41 Tul. Mar. L.J. 197