Harvard, let everyone have access to the Bluebook!

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,

One of the most important books in the U.S. legal profession is known as the Bluebook®: A Uniform System of Legal Citation®. The Bluebook® has all the rules about how you talk about law: the proper way to cite sources and format footnotes in legal briefs, law journal articles, and any other legal document. The rules are highly specific, and many courts explicitly require that any brief submitted must conform to the rules.

What is strange about the Bluebook® is that it is owned by a consortium of four rich law schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Penn) and they keep a really tight grip on it. Every law student has to pay the $30 Blue Tax for their copy. Even worse, if you want to embed the rules in a style language to help lawyers do footnotes better, or any other innovative tool for the legal profession, you would need permission from the Blue People and that permission is simply denied.

This is dumb and it is not fair. Lots of prominent lawyers, such as Judge Richard Posner, have long sang the Bluebook® Blues, but to no avail. In order to force the issue, Public.Resource.Org bought a paper copy, scanned it in, sent the scan to India to be retyped, then produced a nice HTML version of the entire text. We threw that on a George Washington Thumb Drive along with developer files in .json format and sent a letter to Dean Martha L. Minow of the Harvard Law School. We also sent copies of the same letter to 8 members of the Harvard Law School Faculty, including Professors Lessig, Benkler, and Zittrain.

Our ask is simple: think about whether this is right or not. Our suggestion is that they appoint a Blue Ribbon Commission on the Bluebook® to cut through the red tape. Or, they can just hand our letter over to the law reviews that control the roughly $2m in excess profits and tell them to deal with this anachronistic situation and come up with something more suitable to the Internet era.

I'm a huge admirer of the Harvard Law School and their faculty do totally amazing work to make our country better. They're good people and wonderful teachers. The Bluebook® is a little thing, but it is important to lawyers all over the world. I'm hoping they do something about it.

Links: Read the letter, a redacted version of the Bluebook®, and developer files.


  1. It is in the interest of the legal trade to ensure that each citizen has to hire a lawyer in order to interact with the government. There is no incentive that I can think of for them to simplify that process.  

    1. As a lawyer, I’m in favor of simplifying the legal system. It’s far too complicated, even for lawyers. No mater how simple it is, though, I (and almost any other half-sober lawyer) could still destroy any pro-se litigant.

      1. As someone who just started working in the legal technology industry (new job woo!), I second the opinion that the whole thing needs to be simpler.

        We have to have lawyers on staff just to make sure our programs do the right thing…

    2. The Blue Book is just a style manual, used mostly for law review articles.  It isn’t law.  It’s availability probably ought to be modified as Cory suggests, but this is more like an overly-expensive text-book problem than a private law problem.  (It’s possible some jurisdictions require Blue Book citation style in documents, but I don’t think that’s common.)

      1. Is Beryl’s claim based on the subtleties of what “law” means? Or did she just not make it far enough through paragraph one to read, “many courts explicitly require that any brief submitted must conform to the rules”?

        Either way, it fails.

  2. The one problem here is that the law schools have no control over the Bluebook.  It’s owned by a consortium of the law reviews at those four law schools, which are independent student-run non-profit organizations.

    See at the bottom of their homepage?  It says copyright is held by The Columbia Law Review Association, Inc., The Harvard Law Review Association, the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.  Not the schools themselves.

    This is another symptom of the bizarro world of legal scholarship–the one major academic field in America where peer review is virtually unheard of and instead the reviewing is done entirely by students who slave away 20 hours a week checking the formatting of citations in exchange for an extra line of “prestige” on their resumes.   Good times!

  3. We Are Sorry, But the Rest of This Document Is Deleted
    Because the Custodians of the Legally Mandated System of Citation Refuse to Allow Fair
    Use or to Make Appropriate Concessions to the Modernization of the Legal Profession and the Education of
    Lawyers in America.None May Venture Past These Gates Without Paying the Toll.


  4. Building codes you have to pay for? Legal citation guides you have to buy? What a fucking joke. You know a great way to force the issue? PUT THE NICE HTML VERSION IN A TORRENT AND FUCK THESE ASSHOLES.

    I also wonder if the bluebook douchebags know they’ve got a (hard coded) pdf version of the 15th edition (1994) sitting on their public server: https://www.legalbluebook.com/img/PastVersions/USC15.pdf

    I’m actually just shocked that there isn’t already a torrent of this. Not one I could find anyway.

    1. If you ever read the Bluebook (and…I have), you’d realize that 99% of it is only relevant to citations in law review articles. And even then, the rules are ambiguous, arbitrary, and poorly structured. The reason nobody torrents the thing is because anyone who really, really needs it–law students and professors–already has access to it.

  5. Psst.: Hate to be a spoil-sport, but in practice, nobody follows the BlueBook all that rigorously–and no judge will toss a brief because you abbreviated “Management” as “Mgt.” instead of “Mgm’t” or “Department” as “Dept.” instead of “Dep’t”.

    1. True. I write briefs all the way up to the US Supreme Court. I have a beat up Blue Book somewhere on a shelf. Can’t remember the last time I used it. For citing cases, once you have the basics down, no need to check the BB. The Florida Supreme Court has a state rule of citation that can be found free on the Bar website (Fla. R. App. P. 9.800 – checked the rule to see if I had to space between each part of the name of the rule — I think they changed it to eliminate some unspaced  practice in the past 30 years, or the BB is different, or used to be different). Mostly useful for figuring out a cite to state authority.

      Treatises usually include a recommended citation form at the front of their book, which often is different from BB. I was an L.Rev. editor and got into a pissing match with a practitioner who used a non-BB form to cite to administrative decisions in his specialty, apparently used by all the specialists in that area of law. I forget who won, I think it was the writer.If I were preparing a brief to be printed for an oral argument at the US Supreme Court (i.e. posterity), or worked for a silk stocking firm (paranoid about any criticism that might reach client ears), I would be much more careful. Buy I have never seen or heard of a court ever  comment on citation form if it approximates anything close to standard form, so long as the citation is to a real case or authority and is sufficient to allow the court to find the document.  

    1. That has been attempted: ALWD. Somehow this legal style manual that is thicker and worse than the Bluebook.

  6. I am a little confused.  Is this a public document, or a privately-written-and-maintained document about how to create public documents, kind of a Strunk and White for legal briefs?  If the latter, it doesn’t seem to me to fall into the same category as the other documents Malamud’s group has been liberating.  Also, it would be interesting to know what happens to the $30 (which seems very modest by academic reference book standards); if it is supporting the four law reviews, or buys coffee for the students who put them out, then I think charging a nominal price for the book is probably justified.

    1. The Bluebook governs legal citations. So, for example, if you’re citing to  the recent Hollingsworth v. Perry case from the Supreme Court, you would cite it thusly: Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. — (2013). (The citation “Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry et al., 570 U.S. ___ (Sup. Ct. 2013),” would be wrong according to the Bluebook.) The Bluebook tells you how to style each part of the citation and gives you guides for all types of cases from all different jurisdictions. It also tells you how to cite periodicals, statutes, legislative history, books, dictionaries, blogs, websites–almost everything imaginable. At the end of the day, though, it is only strictly followed within legal academia and the upper echelons of the legal system.

      Some states have their own style guides. New York courts follow their own style guide, but they’re not particular about which one lawyers follow when submitting briefs.

      1. Yep.  Currently a law student and work as a pretty well paid legal assistant.  The Blue Book is most useful when you are doing large numbers of citations and either alternating case cites or jumping around a case in citing.  It can save a good amount of space and when you are dealing with mandated maximum page counts and font sizing/spacing for filings, it can make a lot of difference.  Unless it is a cite to something that doesn’t exist (I’ve had opposing attorneys make stuff up and throw a cite on there to test if we’d check it) or so erroneous as to provide no indication of where the cite comes from, the judge will typically give the benefit of the doubt to the attorney if a cite is styled wrong (no one remembers all that crap anyway.)  It is highly unlikely that most pro se litigants would be able to draft a filing so complex as to need to really make full use of the Blue Book and, if they needed to, it would honestly be worth the $30.  It’s also typically incumbent upon judges to help the pro se litigant out a little bit by, again, giving them the benefit of the doubt and more room for honest error.  A pro se litigant usually won’t be held to anything resembling the standard that an attorney will be held to.  There have been many cases where the judge has guided a pro se litigant, and a judge will often explain a pro se litigant’s rights and obligations, and the consequences to them in order to ensure as fair a trial as possible.
        Not to be smarmy about it or anything, but wading into a seemingly simple legal battle as someone that has not been to law school and is acting as their own attorney, is like deciding to do your own appendectomy or to remove your own wisdom teeth.  I’m not saying you can’t, but in most cases, it would not be wise to do so.

      2.  California also has its very own style manual.  A lot of it is stupid and random, but at least it’s written for practitioners and not, primarily, for academics.

  7. You’d figure somebody would write (and update/maintain) a set of Word macros that do the dirty work for you. (I assume Word is the most prevalent word processor in the legal field these days, or do lawyers still insist on using WordPerfect?)

    1. If you ever tried to create a table of cases you would know why Word causes many lawyers to shudder. Wordperfect is superior for formatting in all the arcane ways of legal briefs. I have tried to use Word, but the effort causes me far more distress than Wordperfect.

      The formatting superiority comes from being able to see every single formatting code and the text in a window at the bottom of the document screen. This allows placing text precisely inside or outside of format codes (e.g. bold or ital), and precisely inside or outside markers such as table of authority or table of contents markers.

      Word is okay for routine writing, but why switch between word processors? Or pay extra when Open Office or Google Docs are more than up to the task?

      Excel is fine, Outlook is good. Never had to create with PowerPoint but I suppose it is fine as well. Word sucks.

  8. Hey, try being in mental health.  The new version of the DSM?  Well north of $100.  Required if you’re going to have any dealings with insurance companies.  Entirely owned by the American Psychiatric Association, largely unsubtantiated, directly in opposition to the biopsychosocial models of psychological dysfunction and distress espoused by most major mental health organizations at this point, and the only way to get paid in the health care system as it exists.

  9. As others have said above, at ~$30 it’s not like it’s priced exhorbitantly.  Probably available in the reference section of many libraries too…But they’re trying to license it’s use in software? Wouldn’t that require a patent rather than a copyright?  Since “how to cite” is a method of operation or procedure and those are not protected by copyright.

  10. ” Even worse, if you want to embed the rules in a style language to help
    lawyers do footnotes better, or any other innovative tool for the legal
    profession, you would need permission from the Blue People and that
    permission is simply denied.”

    This doesn’t sound correct.  The book can be covered by copyright, but my understanding is that this would not keep anyone from implementing logic based on it.

  11. This seems like an extraordinarily petty thing to get exercised over; Paul Campos over at Lawyers, Guns & Money has been exhaustively documenting how law schools across the nation have become profit centers for their universities, pumping out graduates literally as fast as they can who have huge amounts of law school debt and no real prospect for employment. This would be like me agitating for the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme to be open-sourced while library branches are being closed. 

  12. IAAL. I was law review and use BB citation in briefs. But I think the Local Rules of the court are far more important than Blue Book citation form. So long as your citation form is consistent throughout the document and allows the reader to quickly pinpoint the cite in the original source, you’ll pass. But get the color of the cover page wrong, or exceed the word count, or use TNR 12 pt when the court specifies Ariel 14 pt Bold, and you’re screwed. Local Rules are free on the Court’s website. 

  13. As others have pointed out, this article misunderstands and vastly overstates the importance of the BB.  It is only important for law review articles – and even if you don’t follow it precisely, the editors will fix your citation for you.  (As a former law review editor, that was how I spent my day).  I don’t know any court that would bounce a brief for not complying with the BB, and I would be interested in knowing which courts actually require the BB citation form.

    In any event, complaining about the $30 cost of the BB seems kind of misplaced considering that you can use the same BB for 20 years, but each case you file will cost $250 or so.

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