Is Copyright an Obstacle to Properly Cited Justice?

Baby Blue BookLike taxes and death, the Bluebook is an inescapable part of every U.S. lawyer’s life. The essential nature of this 500+ page authority on the rules of legal citation means that it’s a lucrative product, so it’s not surprising that its publisher has threatened legal action to stop a free and open-source alternative. 

The Bluebook alternative--called Baby Blue—was created by a team of New York University law students led by professor Christopher Jon Sprigman. In one interview, Sprigman explained that the goal is to present the citation rules embodied in the Bluebook in a source that’s more accessible and easier to understand. 

According to reports, the Harvard Law Review Association (HLRA), the Bluebook’s publisher, has sent several letters to the Baby Blue team, claiming that the publication infringes its copyright and trademarks. 

In the copy of the latest letter made available by Baby Blue’s publisher Public.Resource.Org, HLRA’s counsel stated that it is concerned that Baby Blue “may include content identical or substantially similar to content or other aspects of The Bluebook that constitute original works of authorship protected by copyright.” 

HLRA’s lawyers at Ropes & Gray LLP also wrote that the name “BabyBlue, or any title consisting of or comprising the word ‘Blue’,” is likely to cause confusion, mistake or deception when used in relation to the legal citation project. 

There are doubts to these claims. David G. Post of the Cato Institute called it “copyright nonsense.” Noting that The Bluebook is subtitled, “A Uniform System of Citation,” he pointed out that Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act expressly excludes systems from protection. 

Matthew Rimmer, an intellectual property law professor at Queensland University of Technology in Queensland, Australia, tweeted that HLRA’s IP claims are “over-reaching.” 

Sprigman made similar comments. Noting that while he is not wedded to the “Baby Blue” name, he argued that HLRA’s claim that “they own the name ‘blue’ for a manual for legal citations is ridiculous.” 

As to the copyright claims, he noted that Baby Blue is based, in part, on an earlier edition of the Bluebook in the public domain. 

Students and alumni affiliated with Harvard, Yale and Stanford law schools have signed letters in support of the Baby Blue project. The letters stress the importance of making the legal system more accessible and available in a democratic society, particularly to those who do not have the resources to hire counsel.

The issue of copyright disputes related to legal references isn’t just about the Bluebook.

Last week, Fastcase LLC sued for a declaratory judgment of non-infringement against Lawriter LLC. According to the complaint, Lawriter has claimed that it has received from the state exclusive rights to publish the state of Georgia’s codes and regulations. And last year, Georgia sued Public.Resource.Org, coincidentally the publisher of Baby Blue, for copyright infringement over publication of what Georgia claims are copyrighted annotations to the state’s laws. 

Meanwhile, despite HLRA’s copyright and trademark claims, Public.Resource.Org has already published the first edition of Baby Blue.