Harvard-led Citation Cartel Rakes in Millions from Bluebook Manual Monopoly, Masks Profits

From Dan Stone:

  • The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, an intricate legal style manual, sometimes called the “Kama Sutra of legal citation,” netted some of the nation’s most-elite, student-led law journals $16.0 million in net profits between 2011 and 2020
  • The Ivy League Columbia Law Review, Harvard Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and Yale Law Journal hold sole rights to publish the Bluebook, which is required reading for U.S. law students and lawyers
  • The law reviews cloak the profits they collect from the enterprise in their public non-profit filings and guard the Bluebook’s intellectual property to maintain profits
  • In FY 2020, The Bluebook made $1.2 million in net profits, a third of which went to the Harvard Law Review, which manages the distribution of The Bluebook
  • The law reviews collectively hold $40 million in endowment funds, and the Harvard Law Review is known for its comfortable living

A style manual called The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation dominates American legal writing. Nearly every law student must buy a copy and become versed in its intricate rules for references. The pervasion of its standards also compels a large number of legal professionals to own the latest version of the manual. 

The Bluebook is published jointly by the Columbia Law Review, Harvard Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and Yale Law Journal. A spiral-bound copy of the 21st edition costs $45 and is 365 pages long. There is also a digital version.

Between 2011 and 2020 the Bluebook earned the law reviews that publish it $16.0 million in profits. In FY 2020, the most recent period for which records are available, the Bluebook made $1.2 million.

The current profits of the Bluebook have not been previously reported. While three of the four law reviews are registered non-profits, all of them obscure the Bluebook’s revenues in their mandated federal public filings. More generally, the law reviews refuse to share information about the operation’s profitability. It is as much the seeming obfuscation as the Bluebook’s profits themselves that makes these numbers notable. 

Background

The Bluebook is known for the intricacy of its rules, mastery of which is an educational rite of passage. Learning how to write citations is a key facet of legal writing courses. Joining law reviews often involves passing a bluebooking test. 

The Bluebook’s rules govern the forms of citations of materials ranging from cases to statutes to Shakespeare plays. They ostensibly serve to make it easy for readers to understand and locate sources, especially because U.S. legal materials are often confusingly labeled. Many courts require that citations conform to the Bluebook’s standards.

A long-running interesting and sometimes amusing critical commentary has surrounded the Bluebook’s near-monopoly on formal legal citation forms and stylistic decisions. Most notably Judge Richard Posner has repeatedly lambasted the Bluebook for being irrationally complex and inconsistent.

In recent years, the efforts of Carl Malamud to make parts of the Bluebook standards public have run afoul of the manual’s publishers.  When Malamud posted elements of the Bluebook online and proposed publishing a new digital edition of the Bluebook, he received a letter from the Bluebook’s lawyers cautioning him that moving forward with the project might “imperil the economic viability of the Bluebook” and requesting that he take down what he already posted.

Later Malamud and Christopher Sprigman of NYU Law School received warning letters from the Bluebook’s lawyers, when they attempted to launch a competing free citation guide under the title the Baby Blue’s Manual of Citation, which led to it being renamed the Indigo Book. At issue mainly was the extent to which the word “Blue” was the intellectual property of the law reviews.

Link to the rest at Dan Stone and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG is aware that the OP threatens to fall into the file named Arcane, but it is an interesting copyright issue related to who owns the law and the methods for citing the law.

PG will confirm that The Blue Book is a publication that virtually every law student picks up at some point in his/her/their time in law school. He will also confirm that, especially given its spiral binding, it is likely the most common illegally copied book in law schools.

Although PG attended law school before the ascension of the personal computer and the World-Wide Web, he easily discovered that there are a number of free Blue Book citation generators available online.

Legal citations typically appear in law review articles, briefs filed by attorneys in trial and appellate courts and formal written court opinions.

While The Blue Book tends to dominate the citation world in most (maybe all) US law schools, in some state and federal courts, Blue Book citations are not necessarily or commonly used.

The purpose of a citation is to direct a legally trained reader to the Title, Volume and Page from which a quote, statute or a legal basis for an argument may be found. Undoubtedly, there are some judges that require a citation format that comports with The BlueBook or some other standard, but most judges just want a pointer they understand to what is being cited.

Two of the most lawyer-dense states – California (roughly 170,000 lawyers) and New York (roughly 185,000 lawyers) have their own citation guides available online at no charge.

There are also free online citation checkers that claim to check and correct citations. One of the more interesting ones is Citeus Legalus, the Legal Citation Generator for Lazy Law Students.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Citeus Legalus that PG applauds:

Because there is absolutely no justification for the current Bluebook as it exists today. Law students have much better things to do than obsess over arbitrary abbreviations, rules, parenthetical orderings, and the like.

The original goal of the Bluebook; namely, to create a uniform citation system to make writing/reading legal materials easier, was admirable. With that being said, through various revisions and updates, the Bluebook has become a veritable leviathan of unnecessary rules and styling requirements. Today, the Bluebook has spiraled into an absolute mess such that I’m not entirely sure that most (normal) people reading current law journals and reviews actually recognize bad Bluebook formatting or are actually harmed by it. In my opinion, the extreme focus that most law journals and reviews place on memorizing and understanding the Bluebook is indefensible given the fact that good citations do not make good argumentation or good writing.

This website modernizes the legal citation process by automating it. Gone are confusing Bluebook page numbers, rule numbers, and the like. The system deals with that for you. Thus, the original goal of the Bluebook – uniform citations – is preserved while the main side effect of the Bluebook – endless page-flipping headaches – is removed.

5 thoughts on “Harvard-led Citation Cartel Rakes in Millions from Bluebook Manual Monopoly, Masks Profits”

  1. This seems to be an attempt to make a non-story more lurid than it is. “Institutions hold copyright to a useful book, sell copies” is not a story. It could be if they charged an outrageous price, but price they charge is only moderately inflated. And you can get the previous edition used for about twenty bucks at abebooks. Go one or two editions before that and you are under five dollars. I am sure that someone will piously intone about the absolute necessity of having the current edition, but this won’t make it true. Most practicing lawyers use the copy they bought in law school, not diligently buying each new edition as it comes out.

    • You have missed the point here – that this is simply another example of what many call “the textbook racket.”

      I went to college in the years 1980-1984, and kept most of my textbooks. Those of my children (who have attended college) did so in the mid 2010s. Many of the textbooks that they were required to purchase were the same books as I used – from art history and accounting through calculus and physics. Just “new editions.” Comparing them to my books, there were absolutely NO substantive differences introduced over more than thirty years. (Perhaps some typo corrections – although I found one example solution in the physics books that was wrong in mine – and STILL wrong in the latest and greatest.)

      • I take it you overlooked the bits where I pointed out that the price is not outrageous, and that you can do just fine with an earlier edition.

    • Maybe it’s not a story. OK. What does that mean?

      I found it interesting description of how some folks have made a good buck pushing scrupulous standards that may have lost their meaning.

      Cue up pious stories of the sanctity of the law.

  2. What I find most maddening about the BlueBook is that the citation system it mandates is radically illogical. There were multiple opportunities to make it rational, but every single time they chose the irrational… almost as if the law-journal editors at those four Ivy League law schools were trying to make finding definitive statements of what the law is hard for nonlawyers to do.†

    The most obvious example is in the way citations are structured, which has nothing whatsoever to do with how the material to be cited is actually available. Here’s an example:

    New York Times Co., Inc. v. Tasini, 533 U.S. 483 (2001)

    If I’m going to find this in the library, or in an index, the first thing I want to know is not the volume number — I don’t shelve volume 533 of United States Reports anywhere near volume 533 of West’s Federal Reporter (2d Series), and wouldn’t with a hypothetical Title 533 of the United States Code. No, the first piece of information I need is the name of the publication, followed by the year, then the volume number, then the first page (which almost never has actual legal authority on it!), then the pinpointing information for the specific material. That’s the way virtually every other “learned field” does its citations… but law has to be different. I guess that’s part of the majesty of the law.

    We won’t get into the fact that the US Supreme Court has rejected several of the “major rule violation, you’ll have to redo that Legal Research and Writing exercise until you get it right” BlueBook memes, like whether there’s a space between a section/paragraph mark and the number (“17 U.S.C. § 412” or “17 U.S.C. §412”), whether the name of a publication should be romanized, italicized, or in small caps (including the names of natural-person authors) in footnotes, indeed whether to use footnotes at all. And we won’t get into footnote placement in relation to punctuation — another instance in which BlueBook form departs from all other learned systems, and indeed from virtually all non-US systems — or the rejection of this silly thing called (in various forms) a bibliography, a list of sources, or a list of references… even when it was required in the briefs (the “table of authorities,” a subject on which even the BlueBook isn’t arcane enough to reflect actual practice).

    At least more-recent editions of the BlueBook recognize that everybody has been closing up multiword abbreviations into a single “unit” since word processors developed the “word count” function. It changes “H. Conf. Rep.” to “H.Conf.Rep.” — thereby saving two precious words (or, if that’s a frequent citation in a brief, maybe fifty… no, I’m not exaggerating, I can provide actual examples from a number of appellate briefs) from rigid word-count limits that are utterly inappropriate for “this appeal will necessarily make new law no matter how it is decided.” To use on other lawyerly bloviating, naturally!

    † Succeeding, perhaps; “trying,” however, implies a level of self-awareness seldom present in entitled 3Ls from upper-tier law schools. We’re also going to neglect the problem of pagination changing with corrected editions, as in “The publisher went to press and then the court withdrew the opinion, substituting a later one.” Or with the copyrightability of page numbers, right, PG?

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