Textbooks: The New Digital File Sharing Frontier

The music industry, which for years has been complaining about unauthorized copying and distribution of their intellectual property, now has company. Sharing their piracy misery are textbook publishers. An increasing number of book titles are showing up on peer-to-peer file sharing sites, as students, with Napster as a historical blueprint, copy then digitize hundreds of pages in order to make them available over the Web for free. What would motivate a college kid to stand at a photocopier for hours? Revenge. Many students feel that they're being fleeced by publishers who, aided and abetted by professors, force new and ever …

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The music industry, which for years has been complaining about unauthorized copying and distribution of their intellectual property, now has company. Sharing their piracy misery are textbook publishers. An increasing number of book titles are showing up on peer-to-peer file sharing sites, as students, with Napster as a historical blueprint, copy then digitize hundreds of pages in order to make them available over the Web for free.

What would motivate a college kid to stand at a photocopier for hours? Revenge. Many students feel that they're being fleeced by publishers who, aided and abetted by professors, force new and ever more expensive editions of texts on young people already hard hit by dramatic tuition increases. Students argue that there is no reason, besides greed, for a book seller to introduce new versions of, say, a chemistry or calculus text in successive years. After all, they point out, the basic theorems and physical laws haven't changed since last September.

The reissues are an effective countermeasure against the bane of publishers' existence: the used book market where students can get a textâ''with the possible added bonus of passages highlighted by a student from an earlier semesterâ''for as little as half of the publisher's suggested retail price. In some cases, we're talking about a $100 difference.

Is this form of textbook sharing illegal? Yes. But the publishers, like the major record labels, asked for it. They made buying the materials essential to participation in a college course a zero-sum game. Either the publisher sees a windfall when a student is forced to buy a $200 book that contains the same information as the $50 version that his or her professor has now decided is a poor companion to the class lectures, or it makes no profit at all when that same $50 book is recycled each semester.

Think back for a second. I know I'm not the only person who once bought vinyl records and was continually amazed at how record labels would shamelessly package dreck with the great songs that motivated music fans to buy albums. Digital file sharing changed the game seemingly overnight, ushering in the current a la carte scheme that allows me to buy the three or four songs I like for a buck each. But before the music labels got religion, they had to have their pockets picked by pirates. This same scenario may be playing out again, with file sharing turning publishing on its ear.

The expanding use of bit torrent sites as giant book swaps has the publishers clawing for a way to prevent purchasers from sharing. They've hired teams of lawyers who have sent hundreds of legal notices to Web sites hosting pirated files demanding that the material be removed. But the publishing houses' proposed magic bullet is selling the texts as e-books, with digital rights management in place. Thought e-books would be significantly cheaper than their physical analogs, a student would have access only for the semester and, I guess, be limited in terms of how he or she could access the material. This, the publishers think, will help them to eliminate the used book market and illegal downloads.

Good luck with that, I say. By digitizing the books, they are eliminating the drudgery that is now the main limiting factor in online textbook trading. They are betting that they will be able to keep the files under tight control. But how successful will they be? To quote from the movie Jurassic Park, "Nature always finds a way." And the nature of young people faced with a problem created by what they perceive to be an unreasonable authority figure is to devise an ingenious solution or a brilliant workaround.

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