Worst of DRM set to infest physical law school casebooks

Offer from AspenLaw: Pay $200 for a bound book … but you have to give it back

Imagine shelling out $200 for a law school casebook only to learn at the end of the class that you don't actually own the book; that you are contractually obligated to return it to the publisher.

One publisher, AspenLaw, is not only attempting to foist this raw deal upon law professors and their students, it has the audacity to claim that the arrangement is an improvement over the old-fashioned way of selling and buying books. A number of professors, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, beg to differ and are calling foul on AspenLaw.


Josh Blackman, an assistant professor of law at South Texas College of Law, writes on his blog:

I recently received a bizarre email from Aspen, the publisher of the Dukeminier/Krier/Alexander/Schill/Strahilevitz Property casebook I use. In short, the next edition of the book will be have to be returned at the end of the semester, and cannot be resold. This temporary usage comes with a permanent digital version. In effect, buying the textbook gives the student a license to use the book for a single class, as well as a digital version. And it's the same price! Of course, students are not going to actually return the book (BarBri offers a payment to incentivize that), but the book stores will not be able to legally resell it. This will instantly dry up the reused market for casebooks.

This has shades of Amazon Kindle or iTunes. You do not actually own the title, and cannot resell it, and only use it at the discretion of the publisher.

Here are a few excerpts from the email Blackman received from Aspen:

Thank you for adopting Dukeminier/Krier/Alexander/Schill/Strahilevitz, Property text. We are pleased to announce that this title will be part of our new Connected Casebook program. The Connected Casebook program is intended to provide students access to a greater wealth of learning tools than offered previously, with no change in price.

No change in price! That's the good news.

Under the Connected casebook program, your students will receive:

A new, bound version of the casebook, which can be marked-up, highlighted, and kept through the length of the course, but which must be returned to us at the conclusion of the class.

Not so good news.

And the attempt to put lipstick on the pig:

Lifetime access to CasebookConnect, a rich digital companion to the casebook, containing a full digital version of the casebook as well as selected proven learning accelerators, such as examples, explanations, and a collection of issue-spotting and hypothetical exercises.

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, says of this sweetener:  "Aspen promises 'lifetime access' to the electronic versions, but we know from sad experience that gerbils have better life expectancy than DRM platforms."

Grimmelmann has launched a petition at Change.org headlined: "Let Students Keep Their Casebook."

EFF logo

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was quick to criticize the Aspen offer:

EFF has been fighting for years for the principle that if you bought it, you own it. The first sale doctrine - the law that allows you to resell books and that protects libraries from claims of copyright infringement - is crucial to consumers. Unfortunately, first sale has been under threat in the digital realm, as copyright holders increasingly insist on saddling "sales" with onerous restrictions. You may think you are buying a product (like software, music and ebooks), but as far as they are concerned, you are just renting it, on their terms, whether you know it or not. ...

The 'Connected Casebook' program is a cynical ploy to destroy the secondhand market for books. ...

What is worse, Aspen's new program sets a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of long-standing first sale protections. Back in 1904, the Supreme Court ruled that a publisher could not prevent consumers from reselling legally purchased books. The Court reaffirmed this principle just last year in a case involving textbooks. Aspen appears to be hoping the some recent bad decisions involving first sale and software can be extended to the physical realm. We hope courts would not allow this. If Aspen's ploy is successful, it could threaten used bookstores and even libraries.

If the initial reaction is any indication, Aspen may need to make "Connected Casebook" a little less connected.

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