Harvard-led Citation Cartel Rakes in Millions from Bluebook Manual Monopoly, Masks Profits
The Uniform System of Citation made $16.0 million in net profits between 2011 and 2020
The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, an intricate legal style manual, sometimes called the “Kama Sutra of legal citation,”1 netted some of the nation’s most-elite, student-led law journals $16.0 million in net profits between 2011 and 2020
The Ivy League Columbia Law Review, Harvard Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and Yale Law Journal hold sole rights to publish the Bluebook, which is required reading for U.S. law students and lawyers
The law reviews cloak the profits they collect from the enterprise in their public non-profit filings and guard the Bluebook’s intellectual property to maintain profits
In FY 2020, the Bluebook made $1.2 million in net profits, a third of which went to the Harvard Law Review, which manages the distribution of The Bluebook
The law reviews (excluding Penn.) collectively hold $40.7 million in endowment funds and another $18.7 million in investments, totaling $59.4 million
The Harvard Law Review is known for its comfortable living
A style manual called The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation dominates American legal writing. Nearly every law student must buy a copy and become versed in its intricate rules for references. The wide use of its standards also compels a large number of legal professionals to own the latest version of the manual.
The Bluebook is published jointly by the Columbia Law Review, Harvard Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and Yale Law Journal. A spiral-bound copy of the 21st edition costs $45 and is 365 pages long. There is also a digital version.
Between 2011 and 2020 the Bluebook earned the law reviews that publish it $16.0 million in profits. In FY 2020, the most recent period for which records are available, the Bluebook made $1.2 million.
The current profits of the Bluebook have not been previously reported.2 While three of the four law reviews are registered nonprofits,3 all of them obscure the Bluebook’s revenues in their mandated federal public filings. More generally, the law reviews refuse to share information about the operation’s profitability.4 It is as much the seeming obfuscation as the Bluebook’s profits themselves that makes these numbers notable.
The Bluebook is known for the intricacy of its rules, mastery of which is an educational rite of passage.5 Learning how to write citations is a key facet of legal writing courses. Joining law reviews often involves passing a bluebooking test.
The Bluebook’s rules govern the forms of citations of materials ranging from cases to statutes to Shakespeare plays. They ostensibly serve to make it easy for readers to understand and locate sources, especially because U.S. legal materials are often confusingly labeled. Many courts require that citations conform to the Bluebook’s standards.
A long-running interesting, and sometimes amusing, critical commentary has surrounded the Bluebook’s near-monopoly6 on formal legal citation forms and stylistic decisions.7 Most notably Judge Richard Posner has repeatedly lambasted the Bluebook for being irrationally complex and inconsistent.8
In recent years, the efforts of Carl Malamud to make parts of the Bluebook standards public have run afoul of the manual’s publishers. When Malamud posted elements of the Bluebook online and proposed publishing a new digital edition of the Bluebook, he received a letter from the Bluebook’s lawyers cautioning him that moving forward with the project might “imperil the economic viability of the Bluebook” and requesting that he take down what he already posted.9
Later, Malamud and Christopher Sprigman of NYU Law School received warning letters from the Bluebook’s lawyers when they attempted to launch a competing free citation guide under the title the Baby Blue’s Manual of Citation,10 which led to it being renamed the Indigo Book.11 At issue mainly was the extent to which the word “Blue” was the intellectual property of the law reviews.
The Bluebook’s Profits
According to the financial statements of the Harvard Law Review, 12 the Bluebook’s net profits were $1.2 million in 2020 and totaled $16.0 million in the ten years between 2011 and 2020.
The Bluebook’s profits are cyclic. Each cycle peaks in the year immediately following the publication of a new edition.13 Since 2000, a new edition has been released every five years—in 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020.
The Harvard Law Review administers the Bluebook and manages its distribution.14 For its work, the HLR receives a 8.5% cut of the Bluebook’s net profits as “administrative fees.” (Historically it has been higher, and—prior to a 1974 revolt by the other law reviews—Harvard took all the money.15) After the HLR takes its administrative fees, the remaining profits are distributed equally among all four law reviews.
How The Bluebook’s Profits are Obscured
While three of the four law reviews are tax-exempt nonprofits, which requires making certain public financial disclosures, each obscures its cut of the Bluebook’s profits in its filings.
Only the Yale Law Journal includes a line item for its Bluebook money in its federal IRS Form 990 filings. But the YLJ uses the term “citator income” to describe the income. A citator in a legal context generally refers to an index of citations used to determine the precedent of a case or law such as Shepard's Citations—hardly a manual of citation forms. Furthermore, the “business code” the YLJ uses to describe the Bluebook revenues actually refers to book sales, so the use of the citator description seems odd.
Meanwhile, in their IRS filings, the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews have simply lumped their Bluebook revenues together with other income under the headings “sale of legal” and “sale of legal online.” Harvard’s total disbursements to the other law reviews with their shares of the profits are disclosed, but are not labeled as such.
The HLR’s financial statements, on file with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, provide the key to uncovering the profits of the Bluebook, but themselves obscure the manual’s profits.
Rather than state the Bluebook’s profits outright, the notes to the HLR’s financial statements present its share of the Bluebook’s profits along with a somewhat imprecise explanation of how the journals divide the profits. The relevant section of the 2020 statement reads:
The [Harvard Law Review] Association receives 11% of [The Uniform System of Citation’s] annual net profits, as defined, for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2012 - June 30, 2016, 9% for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2017 - June 30, 2021, and 8.5% thereafter. The Association earned administrative fees of $112,381 and $114,806 for the years ended June 30, 2020 and 2019, respectively. The remaining net profits will be distributed equally to each of the four parties as called for by this Agreement.
As a result of the USC agreement, the Association’s accompanying Statements of Financial Position have amounts due from USC as of June 30, 2020 and 2019 of $596,054 and $591,983, respectively. These amounts at June 30, 2020 and 2019 consist of $284,074 and $290,202, respectively, of USC annual net profits due; $112,381 and $114,806, respectively, in administrative fees; and $199,599 and $186,975, respectively, of other amounts due from USC. These amounts due from USC as of June 30, 2020 were collected by the Association subsequent to year end.
Eight lawyers (six of whom attended either Columbia, Harvard or Yale law schools) read this section and none was able to make sense of it. What turns out to be the case, but is completely unclear from the above, is that the 9% share of 2020 profits the HLR takes is the same as the administrative fee.
It took a decade-old financial statement from the HLR, which more clearly states the division of profits,16 and algebraic reasoning17 to derive total net profits from the above and identically-worded statements from past years’ statements.
Prior to 2010, the HLR also attached the audited financial statements for the Bluebook to its financial statements, which corroborate the above reading. Although a different agreement among the reviews was in place then, the fundamental calculation remains the same. It is unclear what occasioned the end of separate reports and why the HLR’s started using much more unclear language to explain the profit splits.
These earlier filings also provide some insight into the actual revenues of the Bluebook, which are admittedly over a decade old. Specifically, they allow calculating the operation’s profit margins, which average about 59%.18 It is likely that the introduction of a more mature digital Bluebook product has changed these margins, but going off this rate the Bluebook might have grossed $27.4 million in the ten-year period between 2011 and 2020.
A Cash Cow?
No small part of the role that Bluebook plays for the law reviews is that it earns them a fair amount of money, in some cases more than what the journals they publish make from subscriptions and licensing to database services.
The law reviews have also accumulated substantial endowments.
Judge Posner has previously speculated about how the editors of the HLR live off the Bluebook:
I do not know whether, without revenue from sales of the Bluebook, such perks of Harvard Law Review editors as monthly open-bar parties at local restaurants, twice-weekly deliveries to Gannett House (the review’s premises) of food and snacks via Peapod, daily deliveries of fresh bagels, a television room with a Nintendo Wii, an annual “fall ball” at the New England Aquarium, and a spring banquet at the Harvard Club, would still be possible.19
It would be interesting to hear the views of the law reviews about this portrayal. Unfortunately, law review omertà prevails. None of the law reviews deigned to even acknowledge requests for comment for this post.
In the absence of comment from the law reviews, the letter that Peter Brody, the Bluebook’s lawyer, wrote to Carl Malamud in 2013 provides the most extensive public justification of the Bluebook’s profits:
Revenues from The Bluebook are not used solely to perpetuate The Bluebook. They also support the efforts of the law reviews to identify, publish and disseminate legal scholarship, and to contribute to advances in legal academia, practice and reform. Indeed, some of the law reviews rely on revenues from sale and licenses of The Bluebook to remain independent from their respective law schools, giving them a platform to publish legal scholarship reflecting a variety of viewpoints.
Brody also explains that "[t]he production of each new edition of The Bluebook is also a significant financial undertaking”, “the law reviews bear the salaries of two permanent staff members”, and “[n]o endowment, grant or award funds The Bluebook, and the represented law schools contribute no material support to the enterprise,” all of which seems to suggest a degree of risk borne by the law reviews that is not entirely consistent with historical profit margins and the repeated profitability of new editions.
In reference to the cost:
[T]he law reviews recognize that it is used primarily by students, and have made a substantial effort to keep it as affordable as possible. Thirty-four dollars is a fraction of the cost of most books required for a legal education. It is also a minimal investment for legal practitioners.
Many other texts commonly assigned to law students indeed cost upwards of $200, including casebooks which largely contain material otherwise in the public domain. Were the copyright with West Publishing it is conceivable the Bluebook would cost even more. The Canadian equivalent is owned by Thompson Reuters and costs $62 USD. (Though then again, many would argue that the cost of those books is even more deplorable and two wrongs don’t make a right.)
The Bluebook has been profitable for the law reviews that own it in the last two decades. The fact that most new law students get a copy and large numbers of legal professionals will always buy the latest edition ensures that it will keep bringing in money. However, while sizable, the Bluebook’s profits are actually not stratospheric, especially considering what other textbooks make.
The clearer issue seems to be that it doesn’t look good—that there is the appearance of impropriety, to use a term that may be more familiar to readers. To an outsider it might seem that elite students are living well because they happened to inherit the IP of a widely mandated text, that there is indeed something slightly dirty about the business of making money off fellow and often much less privileged students at other schools.
It is much more likely that slight embarrassment about the windfall occasioned by this lucky circumstance rather than actual impropriety has led the law reviews to be so guarded about the numbers presented above. But on balance, it is unlikely it would change much if the law reviews simply published the numbers themselves.
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Note: The citations in this article were written without the Bluebook. You are welcome to submit a corrected bluebooked version of my references if that is something you would enjoy.
Peter Lushing, Book Review, A Uniform System of Citation, 67 Colum. L. Rev. 599, 599 (1967) ("The Blue Book is the Kama Sutra of legal citation. Both tomes exhibit all the variations one is likely to come across.").
A 2016 law review article by two Yale Law School librarians about the history of the arrangement among the law reviews resorted to extrapolating from 1980s figures. Fred R. Shapiro and Julie Graves Krishnaswami, The Secret History of the Bluebook, 100 Minn. L. Rev. 1563, 1584 (2016) (“In 1984 an article . . . . Given monetary inflation and growth in the number of law students, the number of law reviews, and the size of the legal profession generally, it is likely that Bluebook revenues are now in the millions of dollars“).
The University of Pennsylvania Law Review appears to not have its own independent nonprofit. Interestingly there are only 50 non-profit organizations in the U.S. with law & review or law & journal in their names.
Adam Liptak,Yale Finds Error in Legal Stylebook: Harvard Did Not Create It, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 2015) (“Current editors declined to discuss current revenues and how they are shared.”). The law reviews and Bluebook also have not responded to requests for comment for this article.
Which is likely to become even more pronounced if The Chicago Law Review, which publishes The Maroon Book—the primary alternative legal citation guide—follows through on a move to the Bluebook it announced on Twitter in late 2019.
See e.g., Lushing, supra note 1, at 601 (“the signals are back in all their glorious inscrutability. Use no signal when you've got the guts. Use e.g. when there are other examples you are too lazy to find or are skeptical of unearthing. Use accord when one court has cribbed from the other's opinion. Use see when the case is on all three's. Use cf. when you've wasted your time reading the case. Insert but in front of these last two when a frown instead of a smile is indicated. See generally and see also are retained with an apparent acknowledgment that there is no difference between the two”). David J.S. Ziff, The Worst System of Citation Except for All the Others, 66 J. Legal Educ. 668 (2017) (arguing The Bluebook makes sense in many contexts, especially for law reviews).
E.g., Richard Posner, Goodbye to the Bluebook, 53 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1343, 1344 (1986) ("Form is prescribed for the sake of form, not of function; a large structure is built up, all unconsciously, by accretion; the superficial dominates the substantive. The vacuity and tendentiousness of so much legal reasoning are concealed by the awesome scrupulousness with which a set of intricate rules governing the form of citations is observed”). Richard Posner, What is Obviously Wrong with the Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable Part I, 19 Green Bag 187, 193-92 (2016) (“At the level of form, the first thing to do is burn all copies of the Bluebook . . . . There is a zombie quality to the Bluebook. If you look up ‘Bluebook’ in Wikipedia, you find under 'reception' a summary of my criticisms; but you find no defenses. That however is typical of legal academia. The academy rarely bothers to defend any of its antiquated and pointless practices, numerous as they are; and the cone of silence embraces the judges and the practicing lawyers as well”). Richard Posner, The Bluebook Blues, 120 Yale L.J. 850, 851 (“It is a monstrous growth, remote from the functional need for legal citation forms, that serves obscure needs of the legal culture and its student subculture”). Id. at 852 (“The Bluebook’s subtitle—’A Uniform System of Citation’—is a bid for monopoly”).
See Carl Malamud, The Blue Wars: A Report from the Front, Harv, L. Rec. (Mar. 21, 2016) (for Malamud’s retelling of the saga).
Sprigman et al., The Indigo Book: A Manual of Legal Citation, Public Resource at K. Codicil (2016) (“To clearly distinguish our work from other citation manuals, we have forgone the use of the color Royal Blue in favor of Indigo, in solidarity with the ryots of Bengal who were oppressed by the insatiable British demand for blue and the profits that flowed from it, leading to the Nilbridroha (Indigo revolt) and the beginning of the road that led to independence.”).
On file with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Suggesting in part the size of the market beyond 1Ls
The Bluebook’s business appears to be a separate accounting unit of the HLR.
In a fantastic 2016 article, Fred Shapiro and Julie Krishnaswami recount the history of the Bluebook and arrangement among the law reviews, including the episode surrounding how profit sharing started. They were able to secure testimony from several involved people, including Joan Wexler, a YLJ editor at the time, who starts by recounting a lunch with other summer associates in 1973:
The Harvard guys (and they all were) found great pleasure in telling me about the riches of the Harvard Law Review. How could this be? I knew that we were currently “in the red” and that the law school was helping with our expenses.
Perhaps because of its larger alumni base, subscriptions would be greater than those of our journal. But still, they were talking about an endowment! Finally, it came to light that Harvard got lots of money from the sales of the Blue Book. Every law student in the United States and every lawyer had to have the Blue Book, the standard legal citation guide for law reviews and federal courts. What a cash cow—each year, a new group of first-year law students purchased its very own copies. And just by producing a new edition, the group of purchasers could, once again, be every lawyer in the country.
Wexler returned to Yale and enlisted her Journal colleagues in the cause. On the advice of a professor, the YLJ, along with the Columbia and University of Pennsylvania Law Reviews, determined they jointly held the copyright and drafted a complaint. Then it came time to serve the HLR:
Knowing that the Review would never turn down a “fun” competition with us, we decided to invite them to a touch-football game in New Haven. This became the subject of more meeting time. What would be our rules? When exactly should there be service of process? Would we have to serve food and drinks? Who would be the referee? We decided that each team could have one ringer, someone who was not a member of its publication. One of our classmates, Clarence Thomas, played intramural football at Yale, and he looked pretty good to us. We decided that we would ask him to be our ringer.
An agreement was ultimately reached among the law reviews, wherein Harvard got a 40% cut and the other reviews got 20%. Later, as President of the HLR, Barack Obama led the 1991 renegotiation of the agreement among the law reviews.
“The Association receives 12.5% of USC’s net profits for administrative responsibilities and an additional 25% of USC’s remaining annual net profits.” Notes to the Financial Statements, Harvard Law Review Association, Financial Statements and Accompanying Information 12 (2011).
Harvard’s administrative fee= X% of net profits taken off the top
The remaining profits are divided equally by the four law reviews
Administrative fee/X%=Net Profits
The Harvard’s cut of profits * 4 + Harvard’s administrative fee=Net Profits
For every year, the two calculations of net profits yielded the same results, confirming this was correct. The Yale Law Journal’s tax disclosures also showed that the amounts Bluebook income it received are equal to those the HLR states as its own share of net profits.
E.g., for 2020 (numbers from the quoted section):
Harvard’s cut administrative fee rate is 9%, net profit cut= $284,074, administrative fee=$112,381
And if you check the Yale Law Journal 990 for 2020, you see that the “citator” income is $284,074
I include the HLR’s administrative fees in profits since they are not clearly linked to an expense. It appears that the HLR collects funds for the employees who staff The Bluebook separately.
Quoted by Josh Blackman.
Changes: fixed a chart with weird text-wrapping of y-axis values (6/9), cleaned up some language, added example of how profits were derived, and added total investment assets figure to summary at top (6/11)
A reader was kind enough to point out that the HLR isn’t as quite as poor as the chart in the post shows. Here’s a chart showing in the non-endowment investment holdings of the law reviews that are nonprofits. Still not included are cash holdings and value of physical assets (land/buildings/equipment). The total is $59.4 million and the total net assets of the three reviews are $64.9 million.