Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Are Free Textbooks For Law Students Open Source?

Inside Higher Ed, Free Textbooks for Law Students:

OER 3Law school is notoriously expensive, but a growing number of professors are pushing back on the idea that law textbooks must be expensive, too. Faculty members at the New York University School of Law have taken matters into their own hands by publishing their own textbooks at no cost to students.

Barton Beebe, a law professor at NYU, published the sixth edition of his trademark-law textbook last year. Fellow NYU professors Jeanne Fromer and Christopher Jon Sprigman also published the first edition of their copyright-law textbook in 2019. Both titles are available to download electronically at no charge and are already in use at dozens of universities. Print copies of the textbooks can be ordered on demand through Amazon for the bargain-basement price of $20.26 and $15.40, respectively. The authors make no profit from these sales.

Professors authoring free textbooks isn’t a new concept. The open educational resources (OER) movement, which depends on faculty members sharing their work with the public for no personal monetary gain, was established over a decade ago. But law professors have been slow to embrace the OER movement, preferring to assign titles from well-known publishers that typically charge students in excess of $200 per book. At NYU, law students are advised to budget $1,450 for books and supplies each year on top of their $66,000 tuition.

Whether the free textbooks that Beebe, Fromer and Sprigman authored should be considered OER is a surprisingly complex question. The term “OER” is noticeably absent from the university’s promotion of the free textbooks, despite the textbook authors themselves embracing the term. Yes, the textbooks are free, but are they open?

Definitions of OER vary, but many advocates agree that OER content must be openly licensed to make clear that users can revise and remix the content however they desire. Creative Commons licenses requesting that users provide attribution to the original author, or preventing them from selling the work commercially, are common for OER materials. But licenses stating “no derivatives” are not. These licenses prohibit users from sharing content they have modified without prior permission, even if their changes improve the original material.

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While freedom to make derivative works would be even better - with arrangements for crediting the authors and not passing off the modified versions as their originals, as the GNU Free Documentation License covers in detail - this free-to-use book *is* a real helpful contribution. One can even build from it by rethinking the concepts it lays out. It's not a roadblock or trap like non-free, closed source software where the secrecy of the inner workings "locks in" the user and a body of related material. Plus I see inside that it invites people to ask for approval for particular derivative works. Thanks copyright professors!

Posted by: Anand Desai | Jan 15, 2020 4:26:28 PM

Many law profs, as I have, now publish OER creative commons law textbooks with eLangdell, a division of CALI (computer-assisted legal instruction), which can be downloaded for free in pdf, ePub for (iPads), MOBI (for Kindle), and Word. In addition, many of these textbooks can be purchased at a low cost with print-on-demand See, e.g.,

Posted by: Deborah A. Geier | Jan 16, 2020 6:14:24 AM