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City Desk
15 April, 2010  
Something for nothing

Stand-off between authors and publisher of the famed Law Handbook ... Global behemoth Thomson Reuters published 11th edition of consumer guide without the authors’ approval … Who has eaten the royalties? ... Tom Westbrook reports


imageThe Law Handbook, published as an access to justice resource for over 30 years, has ended up in the hands of global philanthropist Thomson Reuters.

Thomson purchased the imprint from UNSW Press last year.

The Law Handbook is a plain English guide to the law and to common legal problems, written by experts for lay folk.

It is a title with a fine reputation for providing clear and accurate expositions through the thickets of the law.

It delves into dozens of areas – from drug offences to environmental law, wills and neighbourhood disputes.

It’s a title built from scratch by volunteer authors, who have received no royalties or fees for their contributions.

Some of the contributors have been writing for TLH since its inception at the Redfern Legal Centre in 1978.

When Thomson Reuters hurriedly published the 11th edition of the Handbook last year, it must have assumed it had also purchased the no-royalties arrangement that existed with the previous publishers, UNSW Press and RLC Publishing.

However, a good number of the contributing authors are not content with this.

They are concerned about the way Thomson has assumed possession of their intellectual property for its own ends.

Royalty free, voluntary contributions were made to the title on the authors’ understanding that the publication was to be a not-for-profit enterprise.

imageThomson’s 11th edition proudly carries an endorsement by the Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir (seen here in whites, left):

“In the quest for a more equitable and just society, a knowledge of the laws that govern us is vital. The Law Handbook is an essential link in the chain that binds law to justice.”

While the 11th edition retails at the same price as its predecessor ($95), contributors discovered the work they provided gratis, is for sale in pdf format online for $20 a chapter.

Not bad if you can get it.

That said, having a big publisher like Thomson behind the title could be helpful for distribution.

Michael Horton from TR told Justinian that the communications regarding the 11th edition “left a lot to be desired”.

He said that UNSW Press did make a profit from the book and that the “content and focus” of the work will remain the same under Thomson.

It will continue to be “aimed at the community”.

For the moment the wrangling continues between the contributors and the new publisher.

In particular the authors are anxious to know how the global colossus was able to publish their work without express permission.

Details, schmetails.

The parties are yet to come to terms on how the title might proceed in the future, with Thomson potentially having to start from scratch if past contributors don’t give the project their blessing.

Maybe it was UNSW Press who sent the authors up the creek when it unloaded the tome along with The Environmental Law Handbook and The Family Law Handbook.

It would be a crying shame if good faith didn’t prevail and The Law Handbook’s next edition was thwarted.