A general consensus among the legal researchers I know is that our usage of online legal research products generally falls into the 80/20 category where 80% of the usage is in primary law, and 20% of the usage is in secondary resources. However, when it comes to the contracts that we negotiate with these vendors, that type of information doesn’t really play a prominent role in what we actually pay for primary law versus secondary and third-party resources. Everything tends to get commingled into the contract, and when pieces fall out of the contract, we aren’t able to readily identify the reduced value of that contract in a way that would off-set that cost in our monthly billing.

This fact came to light earlier this week when Lexis announced that it was going to be the exclusive 3rd party distributor of ALM materials, taking that product away from the current Westlaw platform. In a series of emails that flew across law library listservs, the “exclusivity” deal spawned disgust by many librarians that because of the commingling of the primary and secondary information in their Westlaw contracts, they were going to lose this product, but not be able to point to the value by which Thomson Reuters should drop in their monthly fee because that specific information just doesn’t exist within the four walls of the contract. In addition to this insult, Lexis representatives are telling their clients that they will need to negotiate the new ALM databases as a premium add-on subscription to existing contracts. This includes those that has ALM services from Lexis’ atVantage product through 2006, but lost it to Westlaw’s “exclusive” 3rd-party contract.

I’ve been working on an article recently on Primary Law as a Commodity, and one of the issues that keeps poking its head up in my research is that our quest for stability in pricing (where our monthly charges are set at X dollars for all “in contract” services) has led to such a commingling of resources that we cannot realistically identify what a source actually costs us. So, when something like this happens (ALM’s exit from one service into another) we cannot point to our contracts and say “ALM cost us $Y a month, so we now want to pay $X -$Y going forward.”

The ironic piece of this whole process is that many firms have a pricing list set up for how much they charge their clients for the use of these specific databases, but don’t seem to be able to clearly point out to the vendor what that value is when it is removed from the product. So, do we blame the vendors for commingling all these resources together, or do we blame ourselves for giving us the consistency in pricing that we asked for?

The real issue with these exclusive third-party distribution deals is that you will probably see more and more of them in the near future. The reason? To keep you from going with a single-vendor provider. If you are fearful that the resources you need are going to flip-flop from one vendor to the other, you will be less likely to try to put all of your eggs in one basket.

Am I wrong in assuming the worst? Do you see more of these “exclusive 3rd-party” distributor deals causing resources to shift back and forth from one major to another? Does this make your more hesitant to rely upon a single provider?