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Friday, July 4, 2008

Textbook piracy

It has been said before, but it is worth repeating -- customers will eventually get what they want -- legally or illegally. Content piracy is a perfect example. In the P2P (Peer to Peer) space, piracy began with music because consumers wanted only part of an album (such as a song, rather than the whole CD). A while back I posted an article on this blog about Student Bay -- the initiative in Sweden involving content piracy for textbooks.

Just this week, there was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on textbook piracy. The article notes that:
One Web site, called Textbook Torrents, promises more than 5,000 textbooks for
download in PDF format, complete with the original textbook layout and
full-color illustrations. [...] Other textbook-download sites are even easier to
use, offering digital books at the click of a mouse.

The Textbook Torrents site encourages students to scan their textbooks into an electronic format and supply them for sharing on the site, much as Student Bay proposed ahead of them. This trend is likely to continue, and get worse, as long as students do not see the value of the textbook as reflected in its cost. As a quote in the article reflects:

"We knew that this would happen, and it has happened very rapidly," he said. "It's not going to go away—it's only going to get worse."

One of the pieces I found disconcerting in the article is one of the possible solutions:
He said that if the problem worsens, publishers may have to take other steps to prevent piracy, such as releasing a new version of most textbooks every semester. The versions could include slight modifications that could be changed easily—such as altering the numbers in math problems. "They may compelled to," he said, "in order to stay one step ahead of the pirates."

New editions even more frequently? That does not sound like a win-win for anybody -- particularly if cost is a driving factor promoting the illegal versions to begin with.

So what is the store's role in addressing this problem? Certainly many of us are aware of illegal versions of course materials on some campuses, posted by faculty or students into campus course management systems. The problem is a complex one -- but one that does affect us. Part of the solution lies in finding a way to allow students to get the content they want (such as just the chapters being used in class) at lower cost (which could mean digital). This is an important discussion in which stores have a stake. What innovative solutions can people think of to help address this challenge?

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