Of Ebooks, Licenses, and Law School Exams

Law students are in the midst of exams and, in law school, exams are often open-book. In theory, open-book exams allow students to refer to their thoughtfully-prepared outlines, summaries, CANs—whatever the local term for their study aids—during the exam. In reality, during what is often a stressful time, many students also appreciate the comfort of their coursebooks, required texts, and, for extra reassurance, recommended texts often borrowed from the library.

Those who studied law might remember arriving early at the library reserve desk to check out one of a few copies of a useful recommended text in the days leading to the exam or during an open-book exam. This practice no longer centres solely on the loan of print books. In many law schools, students have access to ebooks hosted online by the library through licensing arrangements with publishers and ebook lending platforms.

However, the terms of these licenses can change after libraries have decided to subscribe to a set of titles, and after libraries make corresponding decisions about supplementary reserve room print edition purchases. In the context of student practice and expectations, particularly during exam periods, dramatic license term changes can result in surprise to the students and difficult decisions for the library. The worst case is that the surprise comes during an exam.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario:

  • Last year Lalita Lawstudent used a library network-hosted contracts law ebook during an exam.
  • In fact, she, Barry Bizzaz, Tate Tortfinder, Sylvie Securitizer, and Darius Defender all used the same contracts ebook during the exam.
  • This term, Barry, Tate, and Sylvie all accessed a corporations law ebook via the same publisher and platform during a final exam.
  • Lalita had planned to use the library’s reserve print copy for this exam, but found that it had just been reported missing.
  • When Lalita tries to access the ebook during the exam, she sees this message: “All copies are in use.” She is flustered but carries on the best she can without the book she’d hoped to use.
  • Lalita learns later from the librarians that the publisher’s license terms changed last year and now limit access to three simultaneous users. She tells the librarians she was far too busy with her coursework to be able to read every library notice about access changes.
  • Further, she wonders whether the “missing” reserve copy really just was a classmate’s way to ensure his or her own access to the book.

The scenario reverts to the law school library. How can we ensure the access students need, while keeping the reserve collection budget from spiralling? Do faculty need to add more titles to already costly required texts lists? What, if anything, can publishers do?

A temporary removal of simultaneous user restrictions during exam periods is one idea. Is that workable? What thoughts do others have?


  1. Kim,
    The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) provides free Creative Commons licensed casebooks and rulebooks as part of our eLangdell project. See http://elangdell.cali.org/ for our available titles.
    Freely available eBooks would certainly provide an answer to the questions about licensing and access that are raised around exam time. Libraries are free to download all of our eLangdell titles and add the works to their collections without any access restrictions.
    Disclaimer: I am the Director of Internet Development for CALI, a non-profit consortium of law schools.

  2. Thank you, Elmer.

    Indeed, CALI’s eLangdell titles are a welcome component of the legal education scene. As I mentioned in a previous post, they are a superb model that I’d love to see commercial publishers find a way to follow.

    The time is ripe, I think, to encourage more Canadian legal scholars and authors to add works to eLangdell or similar projects.

  3. Of course the irony is that Lalita did much better than Devious Dan (who checked the book out to foil her) as she focused on reading the exam questions, carefully identifying issues and composing grammatically acceptable prose answers based upon the knowledge that she was able to summon from her memory in the allotted time.

    Devious Dan, by contrast, neglected to study as intensely (because he was banking on using the text and the cans) and discovered in the middle of the exam that he had fallen hopelessly behind on the first question (and thus all subsequent questions) as he had spent too much time engaged in a voyage of discovery by reading text, flipping pages, scanning indexes and trying to make sense of his now garbled notes.

    Better luck next year Dan.

  4. It’s not just exam-time, Kim. Students working on papers or other assignments have the same problems. Students are strongly encouraged to purchase all required reading in print. However, they may stray into other areas, such as corporate law, and expect to access the corporate law ebook only to have the “maximum number of users allowed” message come up. This has already happened at TRU. Tate Tortfinder is competing with all the law faculty students as well as any student/faculty on campus for the digital corporate law text.
    Luckily, we have not yet seen the “26 circulations and your dead” scenario…. but I would nt be surprised if academic libraries are faced with that in the very near furture.