Textbooks are essential instructional tools but they’re not without problems. Most familiar to students is the problem of cost: textbook prices have been significantly outstripping inflation for some time, rising 82% between 2003 and 2013 and giving rise to some fairly terrifying charts. But there’s also the issue of tailoring. There might not be a textbook that’s a perfect match for a given instructor’s needs, but the traditional model requires students to purchase material their instructors may have no interest in teaching.
While authors from a variety of fields are making strides to bring accessible and open educational resources into the mainstream, legal education is particularly poised for change.
The most recent development comes from the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, where law professors James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins have published an excellent open casebook and statutory supplement, Intellectual Property: Law & the Information Society. The first in a series the Center plans on publishing, the book is now available as a free download or for an affordable price in print.
As intellectual property scholars with a more-than-passing familiarity with open licensing, Boyle and Jenkins are eager to explain how they came to publish an open coursebook. Their FAQ is worth reading for anyone wondering, for instance, whether they are “against professors who want to be paid for their work and time” or why they “have a paper version at all.”
Publishing under a Creative Commons license, Boyle and Jenkins fully expect that others will modify the book in order to make it work for their needs. They write that “[t]he book is intended to be a textbook for the basic Intellectual Property class, but because it is an open coursebook, which can be freely edited and customized, it is also suitable for an undergraduate class, or for a business, library studies, communications or other graduate school class.”
While traditional publishers have been exploring digital distribution, they haven’t worked to pass the benefits onto students. Aspen, a Wolters Kluwer imprint, made headlines earlier this year when it announced plans to use its heavily-DRMed (and still quite expensive) digital editions to hamstring the used textbook market. It is increasingly clear that the promise of digital publishing is more likely to be realized by committed authors rather than by traditional publishers.
And the launch of the Duke open casebook series is only the latest effort in a growing trend in legal education whereby textbook authors are taking advantage of digital distribution to increase the accessibility and change the nature of course materials. For instance, the Harvard Law School Library and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society have built a textbook creation service, H20, that allows users to develop, remix, and share custom course materials based on CC-licensed source material.
A slightly different approach to some of the same problems is exemplified by Semaphore Press, a for-profit publisher of law school casebooks that considers accessibility to be an essential part of it mission. I recently had the chance to talk on camera with Lydia Loren, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and Semaphore Press co-founder. Semaphore charges $30 for a download of any of its DRM-free casebooks, but also provides a pay-what-you-want option to ensure that students have access to their assigned texts.
Boyle and Jenkins write that “Legal education is already expensive; we want to play a small part in diminishing the costs of the materials involved.” In tandem with these other efforts and in light of the growing consensus that traditional textbook publishing could better fulfill its educational purpose, it might be enough to make a difference.
 Full disclosure: my own legal education benefited from the beta version of this coursebook, and from the instruction of both Professors Boyle and Jenkins.