The state of law publishing

First published in the Solicitors Journal, June 1996.

It may not have been spring fever, nor is it likely to be midsummer madness, but things are certainly hotting up on the UK legal internet. Several new firms are joining the Web each month; sites covering specific aspects of legal practice are popping up all over; the principal ‘traditional’ law publishers are all now represented; and a new breed of electronic publishers is firmly established. The result is a more representative, more rounded and maturer base of information and contacts which is transforming the Web from a dismissable toy into a medium of real practical value to all concerned with the law.

The establishment

It is somewhat of an understatement to say that publishing is in a state of transition, and the legal sector, while slower to respond than most, is no exception. The established law publishers are if anything encumbered by their legacy of hardcopy publications. Substantial intellectual property lies in their existing publications, but to develop and exploit that property in electronic form is far costlier than the average customer appreciates. Far from reducing costs, elec-ronic publication of the same texts increases costs all round: publishers must add significant value in the electronic version, and publish in both media, at least for a transitional period, with declining profitability of the hard-copy product as the market gradually abandons it, and large losses to look forward to on the electronic product for some years. They can only bite the bullet, invest for the future and try to ensure that the transitional period is as short as possible. And, of course, they can also try to alter their mindsets to view new projects as electronically delivered services from the outset.

On-line publishers

In the next camp are the pioneers of electronic publishing, including Lexis, Lawtel, Context and – yes – LINK (remember 1994?). Not much baggage here, but still difficult decisions to be made with the increasing importance of the Web. Can we, should we, do we transfer our existing services to the Web? To what extent does the medium require a fresh approach? If we publish on the Web, how do we price our services? Who are our competitors? Who will they be in six months’ time?

The Web

And so to the new breed of publishers: that’s me and – as likely – you, and everyone else maintaining a page on the Web. Here it is pretty much open season. We are all publishers now. There are few rules, and those that apply today are often out the window tomorrow. Because publishing and distribution costs are so low, publishing decisions are made for a host of different reasons and new entrants are free to follow their instincts or whims without serious direct financial loss. That’s not to advocate this approach: ill-considered and poorly executed ventures will always reflect badly on the publisher, and for a commercial business this may be as bad or worse than any direct financial loss.

What the future holds

The UK legal Web has developed from near nothing to a useful, wide-ranging resource in 18 months. The next 18 months look set to be equally exciting. What can we look forward to? Added value from the established law publisher sites; transfers to the Web by more of the existing on-line publishers; the emergence of law firms as significant law publishers; and heaps of innovation (for better and for worse) from the small, the independent, the footloose and fancy free.

End byte

The US Communications Decency Act has been ruled unconstitutional in American Civil Liberties Union v Reno (the Attorney-General) and American Library Association v Department of Justice. Full details of proceedings are on the ACLU site.