Black’s Law Dictionary Application for the iPhone and iPod Touch

Gosh I know I’ve a lot of space on my Ipod, but do I really need to be able to check the wisdom of Bryan Garner all the time, everywhere. Our friends in Eagan MN announced the release of most recent 8th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary Application for the iPhone. It’s a unique publication – as far as I know, the first serious legal research tool released for that platform. And a big plus for Bryan, who got a great tip yesterday from William Safire in the NYT.

While today’s FT lauds Thomson-West’s acumen in building a winning strategy for applying technology to legal information, I’m sceptical about whether this one is a winner.

The release tells us: “The new iPhone application for Black’s Law Dictionary is very exciting,” says Garner. “The idea that you can have a very full, elaborate, complex and richly textured book like Black’s available at your fingertips is fantastic.”

“Black’s Law Dictionary was a logical choice for our first iPhone application,” said Justin Hummel, director, New Product Development, West. “It’s a perfect way for any legal professional or law student to take Black’s with them wherever they go.”

The development of the Black’s Law Dictionary app fell to two West employees who worked out the design and the data on a compressed product development timeline over the last few months.

“We worked a lot of things out as we went along. There was no book that told us how to develop and test an iPhone app,” said Dan Bennett, senior director, New Product Technology, West. “Getting it to fly, so to speak, is a bit of a trick. We learned so much about the platform from building Black’s that will really help us make future apps.” <plug on YouTube>>

“I knew we could make an app that our customers would really love – one that would help them do their jobs better and interact more easily with the law. Black’s Law Dictionary gave us that chance,” said Jay Peyer, senior software engineer, Application Technology, West.

You can buy the Black’s Law Dictionary app from Apple’s iTunes for $49.99. The ABA notes that the price is a bit steep compared to most of the freebies or less-than-a-dollar applications many are used to seeing. The Federal Rules of Evidence are available on The Law Pod app for 99 cents. And the U.S. Constitution is available in a number of apps for free or for a nominal price.

Safire’s plug reads:

Garner on Language and Writing, by Bryan A. Garner (American Bar Association, $60, but worth it for 800 pages and a thorough index, which is becoming a lost art). Lawyers who care about precise but not stuffy prose turn to Garner as editor of “Black’s Law Dictionary,” and we usagists have handy the sensibly centrist “Garner’s Modern American Usage.

In his current compilation of a lifetime’s profound essays and speeches, Garner wades into language and legal controversy and often lets his hair down. He recalls a breakfast with Justice Antonin Scalia, who declared that he cared a great deal about words and their proper use. “There’s a word for people like me,” Scalia said. “An essayist in Harper’s coined it.” Garner helped out by recollecting SNOOT, an acronym for “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time,” described by the novelist David Foster Wallace as “this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire’s column.” (Those misteakes are inserted by subversive copy editors.)



  1. Thanks for the image–I was going to try it out until I saw the steep cost! If it had been $4.99 I would have tried it out. Which makes me think they have missed the mark on the pricing. Who is going to pay $50?

  2. Jennifer Walker

    $50.00 is mighty steep. I feel like the iPhone is still relatively rare in the legal world – at least, I’m the only person ever using an iPhone in my library. Since I’ve started in the field, I can only remember seeing two other iPhones – one on an articling student, the other on a judge. Part of this could be because it’s still relatively new technology in Canada, but I also see a lot of attachment to the Blackberry. I’m very interested to see what other apps for the iPhone/iTouch will be coming out for legal research. And oh my, what the cost will be!

  3. This is the classic legal publishers’ dilemma, first described by Mary Pigott in The cost of computer-assisted legal research back in 1988, and which I thought Martin Felsky had written on earlier:

    How do I price an electronic product so that it doesn’t undercut the market for print. Black’s Law Dictionary is priced at $67, $58 (abridged) and $108 (deluxe), so work it out for yourselves what would have happened at a Ipod Song price.

  4. “The idea that you can have a very full, elaborate, complex and richly textured book like Black’s available at your fingertips is fantastic.”

    This is probably the first time Black’s Law Dictionary has ever been described as “elaborate”, “complex”, or “richly textured”. And to think that each of these firsts come all together in a single sentence. Should we only consider this to be two firsts, since the use of both “elaborate” and “complex” is redundant?

  5. Yeah, but when is Black’s coming to BlackBerry?

  6. With regard to pricing, they can have two or three hard copies in a firm’s library for $67 each, or they can have copies on each of the lawyer’s iPhones (and presumably Blackberry at some point) for $4.99 each. And likely both. I don’t see that undercutting the value.

  7. Connie, that’s US$49.99 a copy. They’re selling it for essentially the same price as the print copy.

  8. What I am saying is the iPhone version should be priced a lot lower if they are going to seriously sell it in this format.

  9. I think they missed the price point too. As Connie points out, a firm that spends a couple hundred on legal dictionaries isn’t going to increase their budget to thousands just because we are now able to tether a digital copy to a smart phone. If you price the two products they same, value judgements will be made, and it forces an either-or situation, rather than the possibility of selling both formats.

    I think West could have skipped the whole ‘firm budget’ equation and moved this purchase into being a personal expense just by moving the price point below $30. Had they lowered the price to a discretionary level, many lawyers would skip the firm paying altogether and picked up the bill themselves.

    The key, and this is just my personal opinion, is to create a new non-competing market. West is better off long term with $25 apps on every lawyer’s smart phone, over shared copies of print dictionaries. Plus if firms aren’t picking up the tab for these, they will still see value in keeping a few print copies around – and West in turn, doesn’t disrupt the original market for the short term.

  10. All these I-phone apps are quite annoying. Really, why would I want to spend time utilizing these sub par applications on a tiny little phone screen when I’m in front of my computer with a 24 inch monitor all day anyway….Seriously, it’s way too gimicky.

  11. why would I want to spend time utilizing these sub par applications on a tiny little phone screen when I’m in front of my computer with a 24 inch monitor all day anyway

    Why would you comment on the viability of an iPhone app if you’re in front of your computer all day? That’s like a vegetarian commenting on the latest hamburger choices. Some people are very mobile and need to eat hamburgers.

    I think West made a wise move at this price point. You can always lower the the price but you will be hard pressed to raise it. Give it a few weeks and if there is very little penetration then the price will come down. If there are a lot of buyers then it’s win-win and West et al will be encouraged to develop new titles. I think Connie nailed it with the idea of bundling the app with the print.