It appears that legal citations are copyrighted, even though mandated by our legal system

Harvard Law School 

Harvard Law Review Claims Copyright Over Legal Citations; Now Challenged By Public Domain Effort
[Via Techdirt]

If you’re not a copyright geek, you might not be aware of the copyright saga revolving around the Harvard “Bluebook.” The Bluebook is basically the standard for legal citations in the US. It’s technically owned by an organization that is effectively made up of four top law schools. For a variety of reasons, the idea that citations can be covered by copyright is troubling to a lot of folks, but the Harvard Law Review, in particular, has stood by the copyright in The Bluebook (for which it makes a pretty penny each year). Last year, there was a fight over this, best summed up succinctly by Carl Malamud in this short BoingBoing post:

For five years, Professor Frank Bennett, a distinguished legal scholar at Nagoya University School of Law, has been trying to add Bluebook Support to Zotero, the open source citation tool used all over the world.

Professor Bennett asked Harvard Law Review for permission. They said no. He asked again. They said no again. He secured Larry Lessig as his lawyer. They said no to Lessig. I pitched in and got a bunch of angry letters from the most expensive law firm in Boston. Even a flaming headline in Boing Boing wasn’t enough to get the Harvard Law Review off their $2 million/year revenue stream to permit a little bit of innovation.

Frank Bennett finally said the hell with it after asking nicely for 5 years, and has now released Bluebook Zotero. It’s shameful that Bluebook, Inc. couldn’t deal with this situation in a better way.

If you want to dig in, with even more details, you can look here, here or here, with that last one being the original letter that Malamud sent to Harvard, which we’ve also embedded below.


Yes, did you know that actual citations are copyrighted? Gotta love lawyers.

Except that a distributed approach to route around this barrier uncovered something interesting – the 10th edition of these citations, which are mandated by the government to be used, is in the public domain. While published in the late 50s, it means that much of the current edition is based on public domain material, which weakens its copyright.

These istributed democrats are creating an alternative to the legal Bluebook called Baby Blue. This is how they describe the ramifications for the Harvard Law Review:

In short, The Bluebook will soon face a public domain competitor. And when Baby Blue comes to market, The Harvard Law Review Association is likely to face questions regarding why the public – including pro se and indigent litigants – are obliged to pay for access to a resource that is indispensable to all those who seek justice from our courts. The Harvard Law Review Association is likely also to face questions regarding the financial transparency of the current structure.