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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Is textbook piracy bigger than we thought?

A very interesting story was shared with me this week by a colleague. The article appeared in Thursday morning's Chronicle of Higher Education, with the headline: Students flock to web sites offering pirated textbooks. The article is based on a study by the Student PIRG, which was given to students at two institutions (City Colleges of Chicago and Portland State University), for a total of roughly 500 students. Roughly a quarter of the students reported looking for an illegal copy of a textbook from pirate web sites, although only 8 percent reported success in finding a copy.

The article goes on to include comments from Ed McCoyd, director of digital policy for the AAP. Mr. McCoyd gave an interesting interview on the NPR station from American University a few weeks back. An audio copy of the call is available online in a couple different formats and lasts about 23 minutes. Also on the call were a law professor who is an expert on intellectual property and copyright, and a representative from the Scandinavian-based Pirate Bay organization.

The comment in the Chronicle article that I found interesting was the following remark by Mr. McCoyd, "I think there's just unfortunately a culture of piracy out there." A culture of piracy. Quite likely. That culture of piracy began in the 1990s with the advent of P2P applications like Napster, where consumers were telling the IP owners they wanted a different product and in a different way. We are now seeing the same phenomenon moving into the textbook arena. Prices have hit a barrier where consumers are beginning to decide that the perceived risks and costs of breaking the law are lower than the perceived benefit or value from paying full-price for content. Stores and publishers are working on a wide range of initiatives to help combat piracy and reduce the cost of textbooks for students. However, the big spike in physical textbook costs this semester will likely fuel piracy even more.

That raises a question of whether the textbook industry as a whole (from one end of the chain to the other) is engaged in a feedback loop of actions that is fueling the very piracy we would hope to avoid. Many years ago I had a great opportunity to work on a problem a state agency was having with legal compliance. We worked with them to develop a system that made compliance easier and less costly, at which point compliance went way up, to everyone's benefit. As part of the process we learned that many people do not want to break the law, but in some cases an organization or industry create an environment where breaking the law is perceived as being necessary, or is perceived as having fewer potential negative consequences than doing what is right according to the law.

Addressing this problem may require some radical steps for all of the stakeholders, but it is a critical problem to address or it will only continue to get worse. Finding creative ways to reduce the cost of course materials, without sacrificing educational quality, is critical. Allowing for the continued financial health of both content providers and college stores is also important. In the latter case, stores provide more back to their students, institutions, and communities, than many realize. They perform localization functions and services that are difficult to replicate online, as those services and functions vary greatly based on the needs of a local campus community. That said, stores and their related institutions have a critical stake in helping to solve the piracy challenge that goes beyond the local bottom line.

Okay -- I am trying to stir the pot and get some conversation going... the problem will not go away if we avoid discussion. What would it take to make textbook piracy a less attractive option, while still ensuring the profitability and survival of publishers, stores, and insitutions, and maintaining (or improving) the educational quality of the end product? That is perhaps really three different questions, but let's give it a go... thoughts?

In the end, we have very little data on how extensive student piracy of content really is. We know little about the representativeness of the data collected. The topic is getting a lot of media attention lately -- the newest twist on an old annual story about the high cost of textbooks. That is not an argument to avoid the discussion, but rather let us consider this within the context of a much bigger picture. Is piracy greater than or less than e-book sales for publishers? How many students have really considered piracy? What other legal sources have students looked at to find substitutes? How often are faculty encouraging students to pirate the content versus acquire it legally? We need more data to inform the discussion. Anyone have some additional quality points of data they can share? Perhaps there is data or data collection techniques from the music and video industries we could examine -- with some longitudinal trend information? Again... any information or thoughts to share/add?


Jeff S said...

In South Korea, a crime syndicate has created a successful business model of distributing bootleg DVD movies currently featured as theater-run only. We understand that the quality can vary, but these first- run movies are in demand by enlisted US Service men and women, whom this syndicate has adopted as their customer base. Ordering is simple: you call a phone number and an hour later you meet your salesman who arrives by bicycle to the designated location- the deal is done. They even print out the dust jacket for you.

Now translate this business model to any large US university campus, where course materials are also in high demand. The dealer has access to all demanded titles (probably scanned copies from dead tree origins). A phone call is made, and the student arranges to meet her CDROM digital-dealer. The sleuthing used to catch P2P college students doesn’t work this time - she never utilized internet resources provided by the university and the IT department hasn’t any records to datamine. The dealer uses a pre-paid cellphone, so prosecution stalls on the criminal angle as well. Business cards are distributed at parties.

M said...

That's pretty scary, but I could see it happening. What is interesting is the recent federal legislation that requires campuses to actively police content piracy. How would some of that figure into scenarios like the ones you paint?