Law professors rebel against new Aspen casebook policy

May 7

Earlier this week, the legal publisher AspenLaw, now part of WoltersKluwer, sent out a notice to law professors who use a popular property casebook that the casebook would now be sold in an unusual way. But at least so far, the law professors aren’t going along.

Under the new approach, dubbed CasebookConnect, students must return the casebook after the class ends. Students receive access to a digital copy of the casebook available from AspenLaw’s website, but they must return the physical book. Meanwhile, students pay full cost, as the price of CasebookConnect is the same as the traditional price of a new physical book.

The idea, presumably, is to go after the used book market. Publishers and casebook authors make money from selling new books. But especially in slow-changing fields like property law, new editions aren’t needed very often. Old editions can remain in use and used books quickly predominate, especially now that the Internet facilitates the used book market. Under Aspen’s CasebookConnect proposal, however, students can’t resell their books after the semester because they no longer have them. This forces incoming students to buy/rent the book “new” from CasebookConnect rather than purchase a used copy and resell it after the semester ends. (I suppose students could share CasebookConnect login credentials to the website with other students, but that is both potentially criminal and also something the company can monitor and can try to block.)

Reaction from law professors has been strongly negative, both on listservs and (now) on the web. Last night, lawprof James Grimmelmann posted a Change.org petition for law professors opposing the policy pledging not to assign such books in their classes. The petition has almost 200 professor names right now. And the list is growing quickly; it added about 15 names just in the time I wrote this post. From the petition:

Let Students Keep Their Casebooks

Starting this fall, students buying some casebooks published by WoltersKluwer’s Aspen imprint will be required to return their books at the end of the semester. The plan is pure waste: Aspen will squander paper and energy printing thousands of extra copies while withdrawing knowledge from the public. For many students, used books are a necessity because new casebooks can cost $200 or more. Aspen promises “lifetime access” to digital versions, but numerous digital platforms have shut down with little warning, leaving subscribers stranded without access to the media they paid for. This attempt to elminate the used-book market directly conflicts with copyright’s first sale rule that you own the books you buy.

We, the undersigned professors, pledge not to assign to our students any casebooks that the students are not free to keep. Those of us who are Aspen authors further pledge that we will insist that our books be sold as books always have been: subject to first sale and free to circulate in the world.

Please reconsider your plans for the Connected Casebook.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.
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Kurt Lash, guest-blogging | May 7