Legal Publications Distribution: A Humble Proposal

The most recent Humble Bundle DRM-free distribution offer, the Humble eBook Bundle, closed a day or so after a two-week run. Here is some background:

What is the Humble Bundle? It is our take on digital distribution, where anyone can pay any amount of money they like for great DRM-free cross-platform products. (Previous Humble Bundles distributed music and video games.)

The result of the two-week ebook bundle distribution: 84,219 downloads of a DRM-free cross-platform bundle of ebooks, worth $1,202,871.71, with an average contribution of $14.28. Some of the proceeds will go to the authors, some will be directed to three charities—the Electronic Frontier Foundation is one—and some to support the distribution platform. Authors include Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman. I think it’s fair to describe the bundle genre generally as speculative fiction, with titles of young adult fiction, graphic novels, and comics collections.

The price of a bundle is set by its consumer. A few ebook titles were unlockable only after payment greater than the average amount paid. The Humble Bundle blog instructed: “for two weeks, you can pay whatever you want to get … six digital, DRM-free books,” including Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. “If you choose to pay more than the average, you will also receive” seven other titles, including Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Signal to Noise. And further:

All these books are DRM-free and work great on your computer, eBook reader, tablet, and many other mobile devices!

Now here’s a thought likely still in the realm of fantasy and speculative fiction—or, say, speculative non-fiction: Could such a plan be realizable for commercial law books? Is distribution of pay-what-you-want, DRM-free, multiple-format bundles of legal publications a conceivable model?

CALI, with its free eLangdell digital books for legal education is there in real-life. But in what level of fantasy can we imagine a commercial legal publisher ever using such a model, for any constituency? Doctorow et al. achieved download value of over $1.2 million with about 84,000 downloads in two weeks. What could one of the big legal publishers do with, say, a DRM-free ebook download bundle of annotated statutes, core texts, or reference tools? What about to non-profits, small firms, libraries, students? And, naturally, bundling in a locked legal-equivalent of Gaiman to boost the price.

Wait: commercial legal publishing, DRM-free, pay-what-you-want? Now I can’t decide whether this fantastic Humble proposal is, rather, a modest one.



  1. David Collier-Brown

    Quite by accident, I was one of the people who discovered that giving away electronic versions of a book increased the sales of the printed book. My editor at O’Reilly shipped a PDF of “Using Samba” with every copy of the free “Samba” program, and his book sales took off.

    It happened because people are perfectly willing to spend money for value provided. A printed book has value that an electronic one doesn’t (and vice versa), so people pay for it.

    I just bought Doctorow and Stross’s “The Rapture of the Nerds” in hardback, because the paper form was valuable to me.

    The implication is that people will spend money for something that’s valuable, if the cost is ins some sense “normal”.

    The cost of an annual like Gold’s “Practitioner’s Criminal Code” is in the continual editing, updating and extension. If I used it regularly (I’m a nerd, and don’t) I’d have the very latest copy on my iPad and a recent one on my office shelf. I’d expect to pay a decent dollar for the electronic version. I’d also expect to pay a premium for the extra-thin paper and quality binding of the paper version.

    My conclusion?

    Yes! Commercial legal e-publishing, DRM-free, pay-what-you-want.

    Probably with an explanation of the real costs in the colophon, though and a fixed cost for the printed copy.