The eternal legal ebook dream


I was recently at a discussion forum, where a legal publisher gave the audience some updates on where they are with their legal ebook offering. The jist of the presentations and discussions was – legal ebooks are great, people love them, if you aren’t using them yet, you will be very soon.


Now this isn’t a new topic to me, I’ve considered how I’d like legal ebooks to work a few times, so forgive me if you’ve heard this from me before. I identified some of the main problems I think legal ebooks would have to overcome before a law firm library would be happy to begin using them, and I want to see if the recent massive rise in the use of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets has addressed any of the issues I first had with ebooks in a legal setting.



Devices vs desktops

Previously, the big push was to get legal textbooks available in an electronic form through web services such as Westlaw, and access them via desktops computers, and laptops. This is still in evidence, but the newly favoured way of accessing content is now through tablet devices, and to a lesser extent, through smartphones.

However, there are still many unresolved issues around the use of tablets and smartphones, some of which were discussed at the forum by the speakers, or in conversations between sessions.


General issues

  • Despite the publishers saving money on printing and distribution costs, the pricing for the ebook is equivalent to the physical book.
  • Only one book can be read at a time, but devices can potentially hold or access many ebooks at a time.
  • Who pays for the purchase of the device?
  • Who maintains the device/supports it?
  • Who pays for the internet connection which the device will usually need in order to download content?
  • Who pays for the cost of the ebooks, if they can only provide benefit to one individual rather than many?
  • Is there any discount for bulk-buying multiple copies of the same text, to be distributed to multiple devices?
  • Who is responsible for training and supporting users of ebooks and mobile devices – the library, or IT?


Benefits

  • Increased portability of materials
    • Users can carry large amounts of books to court, consultations and home without being laden down with massive piles of paper.

  • Ability to access materials immediately
    • Consultations and discussions on-site with clients often mean new legal issues can arise, and will need to be investigated with further research. Being able to check materials immediately rather than wait until the user returns to the office or library means that client matters can be dealt with more efficiently.

  • Mobile working is made easier
    • Notes and annotations made via one device can be synced with other devices the ebook is loaded onto, if multiple devices are allowed to host the content simultaneously.

  • Content updating
    • It could be possible for updates to books (currently issued as supplement) to be integrated to the content of the ebook version seamlessly. Or looseleaf publications could move to an ebook format with regular electronic updates.


Problems

  • Resistance of judiciary to the presence of devices in the court
    • It’s difficult to rely on your materials being available via your tablet, when the Sheriff or Judge may decide to reject their use in their courtroom.

  • Alienation of and increased need for technical support for less technically literate users
    • Some staff will not be confident in using mobile devices, and will resist using them. In order to assist

  • Assumption by device users that because it’s digital, the content is more current than it actually is
    • Merely by being available digitally, there will be a level of belief that the content of the ebook will be current, unlike with physical books where users understand that the contents will only be current at the date printed. Some sort of clear indication of the content currency date must be shown, possibly as a footnote on every page or on every “opening” of the ebook in order to remind users that the content may be dated.

  • Loss of, or damage to device
    • If you lose or break the device holding your ebook collection, what happens? Are those books gone for good? Can the publisher disable them remotely if required? Can they be reloaded onto a new device free of charge?

  • Security of devices
    • If a device cannot be securely locked, if it is ever lost or stolen all the materials on it will be openly accessible to anyone. If the device has ebooks loaded, and the user has been annotating them in relation to a case, sensitive information (both personal or commercial) may be revealed.

Future prospects

As far as I can tell, there’s still no solution to most of the issues I raised earlier in this post.The fact that stockpiling texts on one device means that access to those books is restricted to one user at a time, whereas the paper equivalent has no equivalent access issues for using multiple volumes. The issues around purchase, support and payment for devices and services also seem not to have been resolved either. There seems to be no prospect of any price deal for bulk buying ebooks to make them competitive with their paper versions.
So, what’s my conclusion? Well, to me it seems that currently,  the best format for a legal ebook…isn’t a book. It’s a looseleaf, particularly those used extensively in court. The ability to instantly update a court practitioner handbook like Parliament House Book in a portable format would be a great selling point for users. Even if it had a subscription model that priced electronic updates at the same level as the paper updating service, the saving in admin costs would make it an attractive option.




Online opinions, and offline submissions

What judges like best

This news from America about the online version of court opinions being the “official” version reminded me of a situation we have here in Scotland, although in this case it’s about acceptable electronic versions for submission to the court.

Technically, there’s no reason that Judges and Sheriffs won’t accept an electronic version of a case report – Practice Note 2 of 2004 authorises the use of an electronic case report when it is:

“reported in a series of reports by means of a copy of a reproduction of the opinion in electronic  form that has been authorised by the publisher of the relevant series, provided that the report is presented to the court in an easily legible form and that the advocate presenting the report is satisfied that it has been reproduced in an accurate form from the data source.”

What this should mean is that the electronic version of a case report should be perfectly acceptable to the court, unless someone decides that it’s not an accurate representation of the printed materials, and that as long as the person supplying the material to the court is happy that it’s an accurate copy of the printed material.

What actually happens is that no-one is willing to risk their submissions being rejected by the court because they don’t accept the electronic version to be a true copy of the printed form. If that happened, it would lead to a costly delay while the work of sourcing and replicating hard copy of the relevant cases has to be carried out. I haven’t had experience personally of electronic versions of cases being rejected (probably because we don’t take the risk of submitting them as anything other than a photocopy from the original!), but I have heard that various judges and sheriffs don’t look too kindly upon the idea of electronic case reports being submitted to them.

So, instead, seven years after the Practice Note was issued, everyone still continues to photocopy hard copies of case reports, and nobody wants to risk being told to go back and get a “proper” copy of a report.

The only good thing about this is that legal electronic database suppliers have taken the useful step of providing some of their case reports as a pdf scan of the original document, which the courts will happily accept, as it’s no different than a photocopy. Of course, that’s only useful if you can afford to subscribe to all the databases you need…

Edinburgh Festival of Libraries

Starting on Saturday 8th November, the Edinburgh Festival of Libraries will be running a week long programme of talks, walks, tours, presentations roadshows and behind-the-scenes peeks into some of the many different types of library services working in Edinburgh.

Lots of interesting things going on, but I’m kinda ruled out of any of the daytime events by working (I’ve maxed out my holiday allowance for the year, boo, hiss), which is a shame, because there’s plenty I’d have loved to be able to go to!

So, to make sure I still get to do *something*, I’ve emailed to book a place for the finale event on Friday 14th November:

Finale event – Future of the Book

Panel discussion “The Future of the Book”

Print books or e-books? Uplift or download? Writers and readers or interactive interchange? We are pleased to present a panel of informed people who will present and discuss a range of views on this topic.

The discussion will be chaired by Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday

Panel members include:

Donald Smith, Scottish Storytelling Centre

Francis Bickmore, Canongate Publishers

Hugh Andrews, Birlinn Publishers

Michelle Harper, OCLC

Join their discussion and get thinking about what part you will play in the future of the book. After the panel discussion, you are invited to continue the discussions on an informal basis and to enjoy a glass of wine, some light refreshments and some good company. This event is supported by OCLC and the National Library of Scotland

Scottish Book Trust, Sandeman House, Trunk’s Close, 55 High Street, EH1 1SR

7.00 pm onwards

Free – to book a place please contact 0131 623 4675 or email events@nls.uk

Just my sort of thing, yay!

Do you really own your ebooks?

Via a link on Boing Boing, a post on Gizmodo about research on the ownership of content bought for e-readers such as the Kindle and Sony Reader. It brings up the issue that it would appear that you’re only licensing the content of the books, not buying them in the traditional sense of having outright ownership, with the associated the right to sell on and lend to others.

As the authors of the original research (access appears to be subscription only, but the Gizmodo post includes the article summary) conclude though, if it appears to be a sale, even if it calls itself a licence, it’ll be regarded as a sale.

But you couldn’t sell a copy of your document (some small thing called copyright!), you would have to sell the physical storage device the file was downloaded to. Or perhaps find a way of getting the downloaded file off the reader, leaving no trace / copy of it behind. And as someone points out in the comments, there’s no requirement that says the publishers have to make that process easy for the downloader….

The research is based on US law, and, not being a lawyer, I can’t comment on whether the “first sale” doctrine has an equivalent in the UK.

The Kindle in commercial settings

The Tinfoil + Raccoon blog owner Rochelle recently blogged about her experiences of testing the Kindle, specifically in relation to use in public libraries. She comes to the conclusion that it’s not an efficient use of resources, and there’s some interestingly vague user terms from Amazon which could prevent a library form lending a Kindle with any content loaded onto it, thereby pretty much defeating its entire purpose.

Although they’re not exactly the same, public and commercial libraries (such as my own) are likely to encounter similar problems with eReaders like this. I considered what effect it would be likely to have in law firm libraries back in September, with our very specific needs for authority (hey, if we have trouble getting judges to accept electronic versions of cases, just think of the fun we’ll have with electronic, editable / underlineable versions!) and multiple copy licensing.

Add to that the fact that, as we’d dispense these eReaders, we would therefore automatically become the IT support for them, cos if we give them out, we must know how to fix them, right? And as the Hedgehog Librarian pointed out in conversation with me, when a member of staff does the inevitable, and loses a fully loaded eReader, you then have the cost of not only replacing the reader, but every textbook loaded onto it! *whimper*

Throw in the joy that the Kindle is set up to allow you to download anything you want, without further authorisation needed (as it’s assumed that , if you have it, you’re the owner and therefore entitled to download materials), then you can just imagine the solicitors joy, as they see they can add anything and everything they want to the eReader, and it’s apparently free! They wouldn’t see the library budget draining away, download by download…The only way to stop it is to unregister the Kindle, which then makes it pretty much useless, as you wouldn’t be able to add new content (I think,can be hard to tell from the vague info), or download updates to that content.

Plus, for the Scottish market, we’re tiny compared to our neighbours and therefore would be last on the list for getting our core texts converted to eReader use, if ever. It’s hard to make a commercial case for it if you know you’re only likely to sell a few thousand copies. And if you can make that case, then the cost is likely to be so high to make it viable that every Scottish law / academic library’s budget will be wincing painfully.

So…with all those potential problems with the eReader in a non-personal use setting….I wonder if there are plans for an ‘academic’ version, with blocks on unauthorised downloading? Or if, in a commercial setting, they’d only ever be useful for reference texts – the type of thing you need to have available, but nobody’s ever going to fight to get their hands on it. Freeing up those shelves full of dictionaries, expert witness registers, “Who’s Who in the Law”, “Chambers UK”, the White Book etc., and replacing them with one, handheld unit, to be checked in and out with the librarian. Now THAT I can see working…if the publishers ever did it!

All kinda moot points at the moment, as we can’t even get a Kindle here yet (and no sign of even a possible release date either – a search on Amazon brings up 3 chargers for the Kindle, but no machine), but where America leads, we tend to follow. And if the Kindle sells well, it may be the beginning of an eReader boom. Remember those strange wee devices from that quirky firm Apple? Seemed to play music without you having to carry CDs or cassettes around…wonder if it ever caught on?