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Law Professors Defend Students’ Right to Sell Used Textbooks

Responding to a campaign by law professors, a leading legal publisher said on Thursday that its new casebook-publishing program would not threaten students’ ability to buy and sell used textbooks.

The professors feared that Casebook Connect, a new offering from Wolters Kluwer’s Aspen Law imprint, would be a step toward the eradication of students’ first-sale rights, which allow book owners to do whatever they please with their copies of a book, including sell it. After the professors gathered more than 300 signatures on an online petition, the company responded to their concerns.

On Tuesday some law professors—including Josh Blackman at the South Texas College of Law and James Grimmelmann at the University of Maryland—circulated a letter they’d received introducing Casebook Connect. The letter stated that some of the most popular casebooks’ new editions, including a widely used property-law text known as Dukeminier, after one of the authors, would come with a print copy and lifetime access to the digital version of the casebook, all for the same price as a hardcover. At the end of the semester, however, students would be required to return the print version to the publisher, preventing them from selling their used casebooks back to a bookstore or to their peers.

“My immediate reaction was: ‘My goodness, they are trying to kill first sale!’” said Mr. Grimmelmann, a professor of law at Maryland.

Mr. Grimmelmann decided to start a petition on the website Change.org asking the company to “Let Students Keep Their Casebooks.” He argued that students struggle to pay for casebooks—they can cost up to $5,000 over three years of law school—and many rely on buying or selling used copies to defray the expense. Aspen’s initial announcement of the Casebook Connect program suggested that students would be forced to buy new copies.

“This attempt to eliminate the used-book market directly conflicts with the copyright first-sale rule that you own the books you buy,” Mr. Grimmelmann wrote on the petition’s page.

The petition quickly gained traction and reached 329 signatures by early Thursday morning, when the professors received an answer to their main concerns. Aspen released further details about the program in a letter, posted on its website, that said that students would have the option to purchase individual casebooks, new or used, or to buy the package through Casebook Connect.

Vikram Savkar, vice president and general manager of Wolters Kluwer Legal Education, said in an interview that the first letter was not supposed to be a formal introduction of the program, which will be in a pilot stage this fall. The letter was simply a way for sales representatives to let their customers know about it.

“The main thing that we learned from the response was to recognize that we did not roll out the information in the right way, and I regret that,” Mr. Savkar said.

He said the formal announcement of the program was scheduled for late May or early June, and he clarified that the program would include only 11 titles to start with, until the publisher got further reactions from the pilot.

“This experience is obviously one kind of feedback that we will learn from,” Mr. Savkar said. “Now that we are in contact with people, we want their thoughts on the model, we want their thoughts on the technology, we want their thoughts on the options, and we will listen and we will learn and we will pivot.”

Mr. Savkar said that it was always the company’s intention to let customers choose whether or not to buy the casebooks through the program. One thing the publisher is trying to change after receiving the professors’ feedback is pricing, according to Mr. Savkar. He said he was working hard to find a fair price, which should be included in the next announcement, along with more details.

“We are doing this to make the educational solutions that law schools, faculty, and students have available to them better,” he said.

Early Thursday morning, a cheerful message was posted about the petition on the Change.org site: “This petition has made change with 329 supporters!” In the message, Mr. Grimmelmann stated that, whether some of the Casebook Connect policies had been changed or had simply been miscommunicated at first, Aspen’s new announcement was positive news.

“Professors who are concerned about students and about the public sent a message today, and I think it was heard,” Mr. Grimmelmann said in an interview.

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