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Traditionally, the on board bill of lading has been the only acceptable document to be presented by the seller under the CFR and CIF terms. The bill of lading fulfils three important functions, namely:
• proof of delivery of the goods on board the vessel;
• evidence of the contract of carriage; and
• a means of transferring rights to the goods in transit to another party by the transfer of the paper document to him. Transport documents other than the bill of lading would fulfil the two first-mentioned functions, but would not control the delivery of the goods at destination or enable a buyer to sell the goods in transit by surrendering the paper document to his buyer. Instead, other transport documents would name the party entitled to receive the goods at destination. The fact that the possession of the bill of lading is required in order to obtain the goods from the carrier at destination makes it particularly difficult to replace by electronic means of communication.

Further, it is customary to issue bills of lading in several originals but it is, of course, of vital importance for a buyer or a bank acting upon his instructions in paying the seller to ensure that all originals are surrendered by the seller (so-called «full set»). This is also a requirement under the ICC Rules for Documentary Credits (the so-called ICC Uniform Customs and Practice, «UCP»;current version at date of publication of Incoterms 2000: ICC publication 500).

The transport document must evidence not only delivery of the goods to the carrier but also that the goods, as far as could be ascertained by the carrier, were received in good order and condition. Any notation on the transport document which would indicate that the goods had not been in such condition would make the document «unclean» and would thus make it unacceptable under the UCP.

In spite of the particular legal nature of the bill of lading it is expected that it will be replaced by electronic means in the near future. The 1990 version of Incoterms had already taken this expected development into proper account. According to the A8 clauses, paper documents may be replaced by electronic messages provided the parties have agreed to communicate electronically. Such messages could be transmitted directly to the party concerned or through a third party providing added-value services. One such service that can be usefully provided by a third party is registration of successive holders of a bill of lading. Systems providing such services, such as the so-called BOLERO service, may require further support by appropriate legal norms and principles as evidenced by the CMI 1990 Rules for Electronic Bills of Lading and articles 16-17 of the 1996 UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Commerce.