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Open-Source Law Textbooks: The Answer to the Book Buying Burden?

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Professors are writing their own digital law school texts, a move that could save you big bucks.

A look at the price of law school tuition is enough to make anyone question whether the decision to attend is even worth the cost. But as you well know, tuition is just the start of the expense. Textbooks are an increasing source of your law school financial burden.

The cost of textbooks alone can be prohibitive; they can cost about $1,700 for ILs and about $500 each year after that, according to Vanderbilt Law School.

The current cost of casebooks is “unconscionable,” according to James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Law School. The traditional publishing model is “caught in a death spiral,” he stated. “As the major publishers raise their prices, fewer and fewer students can afford to buy new books.”

Many students are resigned to purchase older, cheaper editions of assigned textbooks that don’t include crucial cases or information. Other students scan copies from their school library or resort to purchasing their books on a pirate site—a site illegally selling digital copies of textbooks.

To combat these alternative means of acquiring assigned textbooks, Grimmelmann said publishers drive the prices up even further to make up the difference.

Some law professors, including Grimmelmann, have now taken these burdens into account and have written their own course textbooks in an open-access format, helping students save on book costs.

Indifference is expensive

Despite the potential financial benefits of open-source textbooks, traditional textbooks are still the most popular assigned-reading materials.

“The problem is that many law professors just don’t care how much casebooks cost because they don’t pay any of it—their students pay,” stated Brian Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law. “It’s usually a little easier for them to assign commercial casebooks. So they’re inclined to do what’s easy for them, irrespective of the cost to their students. As a consequence, commercial casebook publishers can charge students extortionate prices, and there’s nothing the students can do about it.”

Enter ebooks for the law

Open-source casebooks are digital books that are more cost-efficient than traditional textbooks. An open-source (or open-access) casebook is a digital textbook that students receive a license to access, usually at little to no cost to the student. Some open-source casebooks come as a single, complete textbook, while others are segregated into modules that professors can mix, match, and supplement with their own materials.

Zahr Said, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law who wrote her own torts textbook, said open-source authors use some sort of license—often through Creative Commons—that aren’t like the traditional copyright authors often rely on.

As with many new developments in the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic may help fuel the open-source movement. According to Said, as in-person classes were halted in favor of a safer, online structure, digital, open-source textbooks seemed a logical step.

“The more remote instruction we see or that’s required due to epidemiological reasons, the more it makes sense to adopt materials that are digitally accessible,” noted Said. She found that traditional materials weren’t well suited to the sudden thrust into a remote learning environment. She also saw open-source casebooks as an opportunity to reimagine the way she teaches courses.

Because the traditional model is still the most popular method for assigned reading, a rise in the adoption of open-source textbooks wouldn’t necessarily take profits away from textbook authors.

“Since traditional publishing doesn’t reward authors as well as it rewards publishing companies, I’m not worried about hurting authors with this shift from traditional to open-source,” reported Said.

Will they make a dent?

The high cost of casebooks is the primary motivation for the action these law professors have taken. “The purpose of law school is to teach law students how to become excellent lawyers at a reasonable cost,” said Frye. “Unfortunately, most law schools are comically expensive, and commercial textbooks only make it worse.”

Open-source textbooks can dramatically lower the cost of course materials for law students. “Assigning an open access casebook in one law school class can easily save the students in that class a collective $25,000,” according to Frye.

“At a time when commercial casebooks can cost $250 or more, open-source casebooks are an affordable alternative,” agreed Grimmelmann. “They also come in a variety of convenient formats. When I assign an open-source casebook as a PDF, my students can read it and highlight it on a computer or tablet or print out just the pages they need.”

Not only do open-source casebooks save students financially, but they also allow professors to customize course materials. With her book, Said was able to create a course with a greater emphasis on issues of social justice and the law’s impact on vulnerable or historically marginalized communities.

“Existing materials weren’t designed for the overdue reckoning with racial justice and other forms of discrimination and structural bias,” she said.

Open-source casebooks can also be integrated gradually for professors reluctant to make a full transition to open-source casebooks. “Our open-source property book, for example, comes in stand-alone modules that professors can assemble however they want,” noted Grimmelmann.

“Because we provide professors with Word files, they can easily slot in their own cases and other materials, creating a casebook that exactly matches how they teach.”

This layer adds another benefit to students. They’re able to learn from many different legal minds. “Law professors now have the tools to easily collaborate to create open-access options that don’t carry the overhead expense of a traditional casebook,” said Michael Grynberg, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago and co-author of his own open-source property textbook.

Will your professors jump in?

If your professors haven’t yet joined the open-source textbook movement, can you help them get started? Many professors who support open-source casebooks agree that the best way for students to get more educators on board with open-source casebooks is to raise the issue with their school’s administration.

“If your school’s leaders or institutions state that shifting to open-source materials is a school-wide goal, individual faculty members may have more incentive to take on reforming their courses,” explained Said.

Of course, you can address the issue directly with your professors, too. Grimmelmann recommended presenting your professor with open-source alternatives to their current casebooks. If they like their options, they may switch. If not, they may be inspired to write their own.

For examples of open-source legal citation tools, check out The Indigo Book: A Manual of Legal Citation, which was compiled New York University School of Law students, and The Maroonbook, the official citation guide of The University of Chicago Law Review.

Emily Elmer Emily Elmer is a second-year evening student at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and a member of the Student Lawyer editorial board.