09 February 2016

Today in IP Stupidity

The Harvard Law Review Society publishes a book called the "A Uniform System of Citation," for lawyers.

It's more generally referred to as "The Blue Book", and a group of law students at NYU are publishing a similar set of instructions, which they have referred to as the "Baby Blue".

The response from the HLRS? A cease and desist letter to the students from their lawyer:
War is brewing over the most boring piece of intellectual property imaginable: the “Bluebook,” the 580-page quasi-authoritative source of proper legal citation formats published by the Harvard Law Review, described by Adam Liptak of the New York Times a few months ago as “a comically elaborate thicket of random and counterintuitive rules about how to cite judicial decisions, law review articles and the like [that] is both grotesque and indispensable.”

Students at NYU Law School have prepared a new, streamlined, open-access citation system and gotten it ready for publication; but Chris Sprigman, a law prof at NYU, posted this open letter to his “law professor friends” yesterday:
I am writing to ask you to help me with something important. You may know that for the last year, I’ve been working on a public domain implementation of the Bluebook’s Uniform System of Citation.

The work, which I’ve named ‪#‎BabyBlue‬, is now done, but we’re holding it, because the Harvard Law Review Association has hired counsel and is threatening to sue (me, and Carl Malamud of PublicResource.org, the publisher).

The conflict has been brewing for a few months — starting with a letter from Harvard Law Review’s lawyers to publisher Carl Malamud of PublicResource.org:
I write concerning . . . your imminent release of an “implementation of the Bluebook’s Uniform System of Citation” called “BabyBlue,” possibly as soon as December 31, 2015. Based on the description of “BabyBlue” … we believe that “BabyBlue” may include content identical or substantially similar to content or other aspects of The Bluebook that constitute original works of authorship protected by copyright, and which are covered by various United States copyright registrations.


It’s copyright nonsense, and Harvard should be ashamed of itself for loosing its legal hounds to dispense it in order to protect its (apparently fairly lucrative) publication monopoly.

Here’s a bit of free legal advice: If you want to assert copyright protection over something, don’t call it “A Uniform System of Citation” — because systems are, by definition, unprotected by copyright. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act couldn’t be clearer:
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, [or] method of operation, … regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
It gets even better.

It appears the Harvard Law Review Society is not the creator of this document:
Among the low points in an American legal education is the law student’s first encounter with The Bluebook, a 582-page style manual formally known as “A Uniform System of Citation.” It is a comically elaborate thicket of random and counterintuitive rules about how to cite judicial decisions, law review articles and the like. It is both grotesque and indispensable.

The Harvard Law Review has long claimed credit for creating The Bluebook. But a new article from two librarians at Yale Law School says its rival’s account is “wildly erroneous.” The librarians, Fred R. Shapiro and Julie Graves Krishnaswami, have done impressive archival research and make a persuasive case that their own institution is the guilty party.

“It’s clear that the idea of a uniform citation manual came from Yale, and a lot of the specifics of the early rules came from Yale,” Mr. Shapiro said in an interview. “Harvard entered into the picture later.”


The new article ends on a sheepish note.

“Some readers may question whether originating the hyper-complicated Bluebook should be a source of pride for Yale,” it says. “Our response is that, although the Bluebook version that subsequently developed under the leadership of Harvard Law Review currently consists of 582 fairly large pages, the two earliest Yale precursors of the Bluebook were, respectively, one page and fifteen pages long.”

“And these were,” the article says, “very small pages.”
Shades of the song, Happy Birthday to You, where the evidence is fairly clear that the copyright holders never actually wrote the song.

Our IP system is broken, and needs to be fixed.

Actually, it needs to be burned to the ground, because the system has engendered attitudes that lead to this crap.


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