Why Don’t We Have a Free Bluebook App?

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by Christine Minhee

Imagine a monastery for luddites. Outside: brain implants reverse paralysis, gene therapies cure inherited diseases, and self-driving trucks deliver personal quantum computers purchased using payments authorized by face-scanning technologies. Inside: bunioned academics with chips on their shoulders pore over their worn copies of a legal citation manual, lovingly, reverently thumbing through its 560 pages in order to confirm truths like the italicization afforded to “construed in” but not to “construing” (Rule 1.6(c)).

Their holy text is called The Bluebook, and it promises not salvation, but merely, “A Uniform System of Citation.”

The Bluebook has been skewered so many times that it should have its own shish kabob. Above the Law features posts like: Want To Work In-House? Burn Your Bluebook, It’s Sad When The Bluebook Is An Important Part Of Your Day, and Yaw Law Students Support The End Of The Bluebook. UW Law’s own write pieces entitled The Dreaded Bluebook and The Worst System of Citation Except for All the Others. And UW’s Gallagher Library has this to say:

“Think Bluebooking is challenging? So do a lot of other people! There are many different tools out there to help you create Bluebook-formatting citations. But beware–none of these tools are a perfect solution for all of your Bluebook troubles. You will need to double-check your citations to make sure they’re correct even after using one of these tools.”

(Bolded, underlined emphasis is theirs, not mine.) While some students would even call Bluebooking a form of “academic hazing,” the uniform hatred of citation is less intriguing to this author than the Harvard Law Review Association’s stubborn, litigious unwillingness to grant access to the resource in a way that is neither analog nor expensive.

A one-year, digital subscription of The Bluebook is available online for $36. A search for “Bluebook” in the App Store will yield an infuriating swarm of car-buying apps, but a quick Google search reveals The Bluebook’s availability as an iOS-only, $39.99 in-app purchase in an app called Rulebook.

And the only “free,” unaffiliated “Bluebook”—The Indigo Book—was virtually the product of happenstance. When an earlier version of The [real] Bluebook happened to fall into the public domain, an NYU law professor fought to democratize the resource in open-source format, despite The Harvard Law Review Association engaging white-shoe firm Ropes & Gray LLP to fend off the attempt. (Interestingly, the founder of the site that publishes The Indigo Book was also sued for posting the Official Code of Georgia Annotated on his website—an act the State of Georgia described as “terrorism” in its complaint.)

So, why doesn’t the Harvard Law Review publish a free web app and bring The Bluebook outside of the walled, hegemonic garden of academic publishing and into the digital age? Much has been written about copyright claims over The Bluebook, the gist being that Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act states that systems—like a uniform system of citation—cannot be protected by copyright. And according to the Harvard Law Record, a “brief glance at the history of the Internet suggests that in a world where prestige matters, where students and practitioners alike begun their practice with the Bluebook, it is certainly possible to compete with free.”

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