Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why You Should Join The New AALL Caucus on Consumer Advocacy

Note: This identical statement is being simultaneously posted at a number of blogs and wikis, including Law Librarian blog, and SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com. You can visit a webpage for the group at http://libraryconsumeradvocacy.wordpress.com/

We are a diverse group of law librarians and legal publishers who favor fair, and competitive, business practices among vendors of legal information services (LIS). We will soon apply to become an AALL caucus, and we will meet informally during the 2011 AALL Annual Meeting. (We will announce the time and place here.) We ask you to join us as we reinvigorate our profession's commitment to consumer advocacy. Why should you support this grassroots initiative?

Some LIS vendors continue to profit from unfair, and anti-competitive, business practices. Unfair business practices include opaque pricing, non-disclosure clauses, defective editorial standards, misleading advertising, duplicate billing, and unrequested shipments. The Information Access Alliance (IAA) has considered “problems in the scholarly and legal publishing markets,” such as “insupportably high prices, accelerating industry consolidation, and anti-competitive practices by some large publishers.” In 2006, an attorney for IAA said that “single-firm anti-competitive conduct accounts at least in some part for the serious problems confronting research libraries today.” His statement targets anti-competitve restrictions in "bundled" subscription licenses. These and other anti-consumer practices have been sufficiently widespread to exact enormous, cumulative costs on all types of law libraries and LIS consumers. They also disadvantage LIS vendors who comply with AALL's Guide to Fair Business Practices for Legal Publishers.

As a profession, we would advance the collective interests of our employers and our patrons if we did more to overcome shared consumer problems in LIS markets. We would also promote a vital public interest, because the contested practices undermine the quality and availability of copyrighted legal publication. (See related arguments or observations here, here, here, here, and here.)

AALL has a valuable role in consumer advocacy, but falls short of its promise. Our organization participates in IAA, and has sponsored research on merger-related pricing by economist Mark McCabe. McCabe found that following the Thomson-West merger in 1996, prices of Thomson treatises and encyclopedias increased by 40 percent, and the acquired West titles increased by 23 percent. Yet this finding did not lead AALL to expand its consumer advocacy, and IAA appears to have been dormant since 2007. CRIV more than merits our praise and gratitude for resolving individual complaints when LIS vendors violate AALL's Guide. Yet AALL has no policy to redress a history of pervasive violations by some LIS vendors. Neither AALL nor its Chapters have investigated the national scope of unfair, or anticompetitive, business practices by LIS vendors, or considered commensurate remedies. Our organization does not even rank LIS vendors by how their practices affect consumers, even though the Guide and other benchmarks would provide means of comparison.

The new AALL caucus would reinvigorate our profession's commitment to consumer advocacy:

Statement of Purpose of New AALL Caucus on Consumer Advocacy

Business practices of legal information vendors (LIVs) warrant more vigorous consumer advocacy than our profession has pursued. Our caucus may: (1) recommend or implement improved disclosures of LIV practices that harm consumers or weaken LIV competition; (2) determine if law librarians and their supporters should renew efforts to investigate unfair, or anti-competitive, business practices by LIVs; (3) recommend further investigation to AALL, interested parties (such as library and attorney associations), or government agencies; (4) examine whether voluntary guidelines have provided adequate remedies to unfair, or anticompetitive, business practices by LIVs; (5) propose legal remedies to AALL, interested parties, or government agencies; (6) encourage law librarians to discuss or pursue these options among themselves and attorneys; and (7) partner with all parties seeking stronger consumer protections from unfair, or anti-competitive, business practices of information vendors. Our caucus may also take other actions to advance the strongest consumer advocacy allowed by law.

Once AALL approves our caucus application, we will welcome partnerships with other LIS consumers like attorneys, their affiliated associations, and LIS vendors who follow the letter and spirit of the law in their business practices.

The success of our initative depends on your support. Please contact our representative, Sarah Glassmeyer, if you wish to join in even a limited capacity, whether or not you can attend our informal meeting in Philadelphia. (sarah.glassmeyer@gmail.com) We promise to keep all inquiries confidential.

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