Five years of being intimidated by the Harvard Bluebook's copyright policies


I cannot fathom why he didn’t do that 4 years and 11 months earlier.

Best I can tell, this is what happened:

  • Frank Bennett asked the Harvard Law Review if he could use their name and their code (more or less) in his program (an entirely reasonable request, as far as I can tell).
  • They said no.
  • He incorporated the code anyway, but didn’t use their name. (I was a bit thrown by this, but the last paragaph strongly implies it.)
  • Over the next several years, he asked several more times, in various ways and with various reasonable arguments, and was consistently rebuffed.
  • Finally, he said “fuck you, I do what I want” and changed the code he was already using to (accurately) incorporate the Bluebook name.

Am I close? Maybe this would make more sense if I was a lawyer, but as it is, parts of it seem awfully vague. I’m cheering for the guy, but is he gonna get thoroughly screwed for messing with powerful, unpleasant lawyers?

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So they are sending lawyers after someone trying to work with a publication legally required to apply to the citation of law. Just proves that law is less like code and more like cancer, all it ever does is grow, transforming everything else into itself, ruining everything, and you can never get it out of an infested part until cutting out that part, and then some.


I think it’s a little more nuanced than that; he has read the paper version of the book, which defines the referencing standard used in the majority of US courts. He has written some software to create references that are consistent with that referencing style. I don’t think there’s anything in particular that’s controversial about that.

Where is turned weird was when he tried to read the online version of the book ( possibly an updated version? It wasn’t clear) - in order to read the online version he would have had to agree to a large number of clauses which would disallow him from doing things like writing a book on citation styles, writing software implementing the bluebook style, referencing the bluebook by its title.

To be clear, he never agreed to those terms and therefore never read the online version. He spent some time trying to get the authors to be less onerous with the restrictions they put upon their readers, but to no avail.

In the end he decided to just go ahead without referencing the online version of the book, and just refer to the print versions he had available.


The link says he first approached Harvard in July 2011, which isn’t quite 5 years ago (it’s the overall citation project that is five years old). Also, as the linked text makes clear, it’s not “the Harvard Bluebook”: Harvard is one of three Universities who share ownership of the Bluebook.

I’m sure I’ll be chastised by someone saying this is just a blog and that such details s accuracy and whatnot are irrelevant, though, despite Mr. Doctorow’s bio clearly identifying him as a journalist.


(the hyperlink in the end of the quote doesn’t work)

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In case anyone is wandering in here who doesn’t know the Bluebook, it’s essentially a style manual for law review article citations. Courts generally have their own style for citation of common sources, such as cases, statutes, and law review articles, but may require Bluebook style for unusual sources. As a lawyer who drafts appellate court dispositions, I consult it once or twice a year, and basically never see a citation from a party that would require it.

The people who do need to consult the Bluebook regularly are law students and law professors. This could be a big deal for them. However, this is more of a “tyrany of the textbook publishers” issue than a “paying for the law issue.”

By the way, if anyone needs to know how to do citations for Illinois courts, I offer you this (pdf): it’s the courts’ internal style manual, so it has information that a party won’t need, but it will tell you how to cite authority. It will also send you to the Bluebook occasionally. However, the actual rules for brief don’t require you to follow that format; anything clear and consistent will be fine.

The “code” part you have entirely wrong. The Bluebook provides a set of rules on how citations should look. These consist of examples, some guidelines, and a list of abbreviations to use. Frank then wrote code so that Zotero (or, to be precise, his fork of Zotero, called MLZ) could automatically generate these citations (given the right input data). Such implementations are commonplace in every other academic discipline but law. The other big style manuals - APA, MLA, Citing Medicine, Chicago Manual of Style - all have their citation styles implemented in Zotero as well as many similar programs (Endnote, Mendeley, RefWorks, and Bib(La)TeX are some of the better known ones).
Moreover, outside the US, legal style manuals have been eager to see their styles automated and made available. Frank didn’t just receive permission, but active support from editors of the OSCOLA manual (the most prominent manual for legal citations in the UK) as well as the McGill for legal citations, one of the most important Canadian legal style manuals. So the law reviews’ claims here are really quite extraordinary.
IANAL, but it does strike me at noteworthy that it is not possible to copyright recipes in the US: And I do think that a citation style is just that - a recipe.

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