The Bluebook describes itself as a “unique system of citation” on which “generations of law students, lawyers, scholars, judges, and other legal professionals have relied.” One NYU Law professor is trying to change this reliance with a new project called ‘Baby Blue’ that aims to bring this citation system into the public domain. Learn more about Baby Blue from the interview with Professor Christopher Sprigman, below.
Can you give an overview of the Baby Blue project?
The Bluebook is nothing more than the expression of something called the uniform system of citation. The system is a set of rules, and The Bluebook is an expression of the system. The Bluebook editors have claimed copyright in that expression.
The problem with that is the law is supposed to be accessible to people, and The Bluebook is a basic piece of infrastructure for speaking the language of the law. Law firms and small practices need to use The Bluebook. Prisoners in jails who are writing pro se briefs need to use The Bluebook. It would be wonderful if The Bluebook were more widely accessible to people.
A problem with The Bluebook is the citation rules that it puts in place have devolved over a long period of time. They’re a little creaky – and antiquated. I’ll give you an example: The Bluebook says you can italicize case names or you can underline them. No one underlines anything anymore; underlining is what mechanical typewriters used to do because they couldn’t italicize. Eventually we can update things like this, and fit the citation format to a developing world. We can make it simpler and more effective – easier to use learn and less of a barrier. To do that I think it would be helpful to set The Bluebook free from copyright restrictions, both because this will ease access to it and also because over time, people can change it.
We’re re-expressing The Bluebook’s uniform system of citation, which is a system not covered by copyright and also not covered by patent in this case. Our goal is to re-express it in a simpler, more compact way that is fully compatible with The Bluebook version, just easier to use, more accessible and free of copyright restrictions.
What’s the process been like developing the project?
The first thing we did was look at The Bluebook and try to understand what the rules were, in distinction from the particular expression of the rules. Then, we tried to re-write those rules and express them accurately but a bit more simply, using different examples. We avoided copyrighted expression in The Bluebook wherever we could. Where there was really only one way to say something, we said it basically the same way because we had to. But the merger doctrine will cover us there because if there’s only one way to express a rule and the rule itself is not copyrighted, then you’re basically allowed to use that expression. We’re doing the best we can to minimize what we use from The Bluebook, but where we have to express a rule in a certain way, we do.
There’s been a team of NYU students that have done the bulk of the hard work from the beginning. They’ve been incredibly insightful, well organized and motivated. It’s just been and incredible pleasure to work with them. That’s been the best thing about this to me.
What’s the timeline for the project?
We started last year, we have a draft, and we’re refining it now. We’re hoping to be able to release something in beta form by Thanksgiving or at least by the end of the semester. People can then critique it, and we’ll try to improve it in the spring with the goal of getting this out to the world in its fully formed version sometime late spring 2016.
Our version of the uniform system of citation will be fully compatible with The Bluebook. In the future, if people want to propose changes that make the uniform system of citation a better system of citation, I think that would be a good thing. We’re going to start fully compatible but maybe we don’t end up there.
Who publishes The Bluebook and do they make profit from it?
A consortium of the Columbia Law Review, the Penn Law Review, the Harvard Law Review and the Yale Law Journal – that’s the cartel that publishes The Bluebook. Those are all very rich law schools and their law reviews realize revenues from this. This is all well and good, but they’ve had the copyright on this for a long, long time. I think the copyright on The Bluebook is very thin – it doesn’t actually cover the system of citation, which is uncopyrightable. It covers the expression of that system, which we’re going to re-express differently.
At the beginning of this process I had an exchange of letters with lawyers who represent The Bluebook. They wrote me back and said they were going to take some of the concerns on board and provide wider access to The Bluebook, which is in part what we were concerned about. I don’t see a lot of action on that front. But even if they did, I don’t think that would be enough. One thing that we’d like to do is to allow people to improve the system. Why should improvements to the system of legal citation be in the hands of the editors from four law reviews? That seems like a weird governance mechanism.
What kind of improvements do you think you might see?
Our system of legal citation is on the whole far too complicated. It’s a huge entry barrier to people trying to represent themselves in court. What a system of citation should do is allow people readily to find things that are being cited and to read those cited authorities. There are lots of pretty simple systems of citation that can do that reliably. The Bluebook is enormously over-prescriptive, too detailed, too rigid, and uselessly baroque. It’s a massive misallocation of resources. People should be thinking about arguments, not the fine points of how to cite something. I think generally we have a system of citation that’s relatively inaccessible because of its complexity and relatively inaccessible because of its cost. Neither of those things is good. This is why we have this project.
UPDATE February 9, 2016: Baby Blue is now available at
Kayla Wieche is a J.D. candidate, 2017, at NYU School of Law.