Copyright Law

After blogger outcry, legal publisher changes policy on required return of hard-copy casebooks

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Updated: Aspen Publishers has apparently responded to an outcry over its plan to require law students to return their property casebooks at the end of the semester.

The company came in for criticism after a professor at South Texas College of Law announced he may not switch to a new edition of the casebook because of a “bizarre” email sent by the publisher.

Law professor Josh Blackman, writing at Josh Blackman’s Blog, said Aspen Publishers notified him that it will require law students to return their hard copies of the book at the end of the semester, though they can keep the electronic version. Blackman identified the textbook as the property law casebook by Dukeminier/Krier/Alexander/Schill/Strahilevitz.

Even if students ignored the return requirement, bookstores would not be able to resell the book, Blackman said. “This will instantly dry up the reused market for casebooks,” he wrote.

Now the company has apparently changed its policy, Blackman writes in a new post at Josh Blackman’s Blog. Students can opt to buy a hard copy of the book without digital materials and keep their books at the end of the semester. Or they can buy the digital book along with the hard copy, and return the hard copy book at semester’s end, though they can keep the digital version.

“I think this latter option is unwise, and should be abandoned altogether, but I appreciate that Aspen has changed their policy,” Blackman wrote. “I will declare a partial victory.”

Before the apparent policy change, Blackman had encouraged professors to sign an online petition protesting the policy, written by University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann. “This attempt to eliminate the used-book market directly conflicts with copyright’s first sale rule that you own the books you buy,” Grimmelmann wrote.

The Aspen casebooks are published by Wolters Kluwer.

Vikram Savkar, the vice president and general manager of Wolters Kluwer Legal Education, tells the ABA Journal the property textbook is one of 11 texts out of more than 900 titles that will be available this year through a new, digital “Connected Casebook” program.

The pilot program offers an online version of the casebooks, where students can highlight passages and take notes. Students can keep the digital materials, including the casebooks, for life. “That’s what we saw as the take-forward product,” Savkar says.

Savkar notes there is already a “thriving rental business” for law school textbooks, and requiring students with the digital book to return the hard-copy version was modeled on that practice. “We didn’t invent this from whole cloth,” he says. The current plan is to recycle the returned texts.

A private email alerting professors to the new pilot program ended up on listservs and blogs before it was announced to the public, Savkar says. Details were still being finalized. Based on the “very clear and resounding feedback” over the last few days, the company decided to offer the two options, Savkar tells the ABA Journal.

Savkar says the company will seek feedback during the pilot program. “This year is very much a learning year,” he says, “and this week is very much a learning week.”

Updated at 10:35 a.m. to report on the apparent policy change. Updated on May 9 to include Savkar’s comments.

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