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Hate the Bluebook? Meet Baby Blue, a New, Free Alternative

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 12, 2016 5:59 AM

The Bluebook may be one of the world's most hated books. It's frustratingly complicated, not particularly well organized, and poorly bound. Oh, and a fresh version costs about $40, most of which goes to Harvard, the wealthiest nonprofit in the world after the Catholic Church.

But now it's got some competition. Students from NYU Law, led by professor Chris Sprigman, have put together their own streamlined, digital, open-source version, dubbed Baby Blue, and they're giving it away for free, despite threats from Harvard's lawyers.

Who Takes Your Bluebook Cash

The Bluebook might be "the most boring piece of intellectual property imaginable," as David Post describes it in The Washington Post, but it's a valuable one. Not only does every law student in the country lay down their cash for the Bluebook before their first class, some even pay annually for online subscriptions. All that cash goes to a consortium of law schools, with the lion's share given over to Harvard.

The Harvard Law Journal claims to be the originator of the Bluebook, a paternity that was recently contested by two Yale librarians.

Open-Source Citation?

But according to some, no one owns the Bluebook. A copyright fight has "led to open-source advocates believing a large chunk of the book is in the public domain," according to Above the Law's Kathryn Rubino. Those advocates have put out their own open-source uniform system of citation.

If you're not familiar with the term "open source," you're not alone. It's a buzzword much more common in tech circles than legal ones. Open source refers to allowing free, open access to a product's design, blueprint, code, etc. Linux, for example, is an open-source operating system. Anyone can go into the source code and muddle around.

The same too with Baby Blue. Echoing the techy language of open source, the first version of Baby Blue is labeled an "alpha release" and the public is invited to help the authors "debug" the materials.

Advocates for Baby Blue think it will help spread legal knowledge, at least as far as citation is concerned. Many Yale Law students recently signed a letter supporting Baby Blue, declaring: "We believe democratizing the rules of citation increases access to justice for all." (Which is fine, I suppose, though improper citation is hardly the greatest barrier to justice.)

Just Kind of a Knockoff

The Baby Blue project is spearheaded by NYU's Chris Sprigman and attributed to "Sprigman et anon. al." (Now that's an abbreviation you don't see every day.)

Sprigman, an intellectual property professor, once ran the (currently abandoned) blog 'The Knockoff Economy,' a look at 'how imitation sparks innovation.' One of the last posts there praises the life and work of Aaron Swartz, who used university networks to download academic papers typically hidden behind paywalls and give them away for free online.

Is Baby Blue in the same vein? Sort of. A quick glance at Baby Blue shows that some content is almost exactly the same as the Bluebook's, such as the abbreviations in Table 6, which covers abbreviations in case names. And Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 60 (1986), will come out the same, whether you use Harvard's publication or Sprigman's.

For a project based on the idea that "the Bluebook is an anachronism. It is over-prescriptive and rigid," Baby Blue hews close to it.

But it does have some innovations, outside of the pricing. Organization is different, examples are clearer, and the "BabyBlue Clues" scattered about are amusing and sort of helpful. Why not test it out -- before Harvard's lawyers shut it down.

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