“EBooks” v. “Online Books”

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article on eBooks and their application to a legal library. One trend I have noticed since then is that publishers now appear to be differentiating between “eBooks” and “online books”. “Online books” are those books that are available purely through databases or online platforms, such as Carswell’s eReference platform or CCH Online. By contrast, the term “eBook” is used to refer to books which are available in ePub (or other electronic formats) and which are intended for electronic devices. Licensing varies but generally online books are rented while eBooks are “owned” (subject to DRM and other licensing restrictions — for example, eBooks cannot be transferred after the initial sale, unlike print books.) However, eBooks tend to be limited to one owner (or device) while online books are accessible by multiple users. Due to this, eBooks tend to be treated as desk copies, that is those publications bought multiple times by an organization so that that each lawyer can have their own personal copy.

The two major publishers differ in how they offer their electronic book products. LexisNexis has chosen an existing platform developed by a third party (OverDrive), while Carswell has developed its own eBook platforms.

In April 2012, LexisNexis announced an agreement with OverDrive to create the LexisNexis® Digital Library. This partnership will provide American customers with access to “more than 1,200 titles now available in eBook format.” It seems probable that LexisNexis’s Canadian materials will also be available on OverDrive at some point. As OverDrive has been successfully deployed and used by a large number of public libraries to provide access to eBooks, this allows LexisNexis to focus on providing legal content rather than creating a new eBook platform from scratch; it will be interesting to see how OverDrive’s public library model works for legal books.

LexisNexis also offers access to electronic versions of a number of its Canadian print and loose-leaf titles through Quicklaw. Titles tend to be bundled into specific subject-area subscriptions rather than being available to be purchased on an individual basis.

Carswell offers access to its eBook titles through its ProView platform. Carswell has approximately 360 U.S. titles for this platform but only three Canadian titles (the Practitioner’s Income Tax Act, the Annotated Labour Code, and the Code criminel annoté produced by Yvon Blais) as well as a number of Sweet & Maxwell titles. For a number of titles, ProView access has been bundled with the print versions at no additional cost, making it more likely that lawyers will try out the electronic variant. One downside with ProView is that there is no organization-wide account as each title has to be tied to a named customer.

Carswell has increased offerings on its Carswell eReference platform to 19 loose-leaf titles. These titles are all electronic versions of existing print materials and can be purchased individually rather than just as part of a bundle. Carswell’s Reference platform allows IP authentication (so users do not have to remember passwords, but if they want to access the service from somewhere other than the office, they will have to use a VPN into the office) and does not restrict number of users for the same location. It also allows usage tracking. The major challenge with this platform is managing costs, as Carswell charges for access to the titles in the same way that it charges for loose-leafs, i.e. every time a title is updated, subscribers get an invoice, making it hard to predict the yearly cost of the service.

My suspicion is that “online books”, rather than eBooks, will end up being the favoured option for legal libraries. Online books require less management than eBooks do, and are accessible to larger numbers of people, although cost and licensing issues may act as barriers.

Legal books are used for reference, so one of the strengths of having these books available electronically is the fact that they can be linked to the case law and legislation that they refer to, as well as other electronic books. For librarians and legal researchers, the ideal would be to move seamlessly from reference source to reference source, irrespective of who the publisher might be. Alas, the ideal solution for libraries is not always a practical one for publishers.

Luckily for eBook and online book users, most publishers are receptive to suggestions and are willing to work with libraries to figure out what would be the a mutually acceptable solution. It is important that all the concerned parties — publishers, libraries, lawyers and others — cooperate to make sure that the legal eBook model is one that works for everyone.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    IMHO, the e-book and online-book offerings of the various vendors assume “read once and discard”, which is not what I do with electronic books.

    When doing research, I look at classic papers (ie, cases) and their description in ACM Computing Surveys (ie, Halsburys) and then start collecting the relationships between them, often in the form of links if I’m on-line and yellow stickies if I’m not.

    For every chapter (case) I end up with a collection of papers, mostly electronic, with notes in-line, glued together with links, especially links from a “working notes” document.

    The chapter gets written as an argument, based on the working notes, but often in quite a different order, to make it easier for the reader.

    I then keep the background material around for a second edition (appeal), so I can refresh my memory quickly. I also use the same material for related articles, especially when something interesting is discovered about the subject (a new decision).

    My e-books are almost all ePub, and are full of my notes in magenta (I like the color) and links to other documents and epubs. I actively try to buy printed books where the full text is also available as an ePub.

    Documents I can’t write in are distinctly less useful. Documents, like PDFs and badly indexed web services where I can’t even link to a specific section are immensely less useful.

    Electronic publications should help me do my research job, not require me to re-research all my references because my 14-day subscription has expired!

    –dave (wearing his computer-nerd hat) c-b