About a month ago I wrote about James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins of the Center of the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School releasing a free download of an Intellectual Property Statutory Supplement (which normally big publishers try to sell for around $50). As noted, this was a kickoff for an even bigger project, an open coursebook in intellectual property. That Open Intellectual Property Casebook is now available. You can download the whole thing for free. If you want a nice printed copy, it’ll currently run about $24 on Amazon — which is about $135 less than other IP case books. The entire book weighs in at nearly 800 pages, so there’s a lot in there if you felt like delving into a variety of topics around copyright, trademark and patent law — including specific efforts by Congress around those laws and the way that the courts have interpreted them.
As mentioned in our last post, Boyle and Jenkins are doing this, in part, because they recognize the insane prices that academic publishers have been getting away with charging for their books:
Partly, we do it because we think the price of legal casebooks and materials is obscene. Law students, who are already facing large debt burdens, are required to buy casebooks that cost $150–$200, and “statutory supplements” that consist mainly of unedited, public domain, Federal statutes for $40 or $50. The total textbook bill for a year can be over $1500. This is not a criticism of casebook authors, but rather of the casebook publishing system. We know well that putting together a casebook is a lot of work and can represent considerable scholarship and pedagogic innovation. We just put together this one and we are proud of it. But we think that the cost is disproportionate and that the benefit flows disproportionately to conventional legal publishers. Some of those costs might have been more justifiable when we did not have mechanisms for free worldwide and almost costless distribution. Some might have been justifiable when we did not have fast, cheap and accurate print on demand services. Now we have both. Legal education is already expensive; we want to play a small part in diminishing the costs of the materials involved.
However, they also note that it’s not just about making the books cheaper, but better and more useful:
Our point is not only that the current casebook is vastly too expensive, it is also awkward, inflexible, lacking visual stimulus, incapable of customization and hard to preview and search on the open web. Casebooks do not respond well to the different needs of different professors. Students cannot easily be given free, searchable digital access to all the materials, on all their devices, anywhere, access that does not go away when the course—or the publisher—ends. We can do that.
There are also lots of people outside of law school, or outside this country, who would like to know more about American law—just as there are people outside of computer science who want to know about artificial intelligence. Free is a good price-point for them. Customizable is a good form. This book is merely a beta-test version, but it is an example of what can be done.
In case you’re wondering, while the statutory supplement was available on a CC: BY license (requires just attribution), this casebook is under a CC: BY-NC-SA license. The key differences: the former can be resold commercially while the latter has a block on commercial uses. It also has a "share alike" requirement. While I’m a huge fan of Creative Commons, I’ve been critical of its licenses that include the non-commercial restriction and believe there are strong reasons to remove them, in part because of a perception and branding problem that people have, which potentially do more harm than good to the Creative Commons brand. Many people believe that all CC licenses are "non-commercial" which has actually limited those who wish to use them to encourage commercial use. Separately, the definition of "non-commercial" can be pretty vague (though, to its credit, Creative Commons has worked hard to clarify).
While Boyle and Jenkins are using an NC license with the casebook, I’m happy that they at least put in a note defining their interpretation of commercial use:
Editor’s note: we interpret this to mean “providing the material above cost.” Digital cost is zero. You are free to reproduce the material in paper form and charge a fee to cover copying costs, but nothing more. This applies both to commercial and non commercial entities.
I still think it would have been fine if they’d skipped the "NC" altogether, but it does not appear to be a huge issue here. On the whole this is great news for folks who want to learn more about copyright, patents and trademark law — whether you’re a law student or just an interested bystander…