Copyright fight looms over college textbooks

The high cost of college textbooks has spawned a new battleground in the fight to keep students from downloading copyright-protected materials over the internet: textbook file sharing.

Several web sites allow–and, in some cases, encourage–students to make available scanned copies of textbook pages for others to download free of charge, often using the same peer-to-peer file-sharing technology that is used to swap music and movies online.

"In the age of Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing for music, young people are used to taking copyrighted material," said J.D. Harriman, a partner in the intellectual property practice for the Los Angeles-based law firm DLA Piper. "This is not the education we want to give these students from the very beginning–to be copyright infringers."

Driving this latest trend are soaring textbook prices, which have risen at twice the annual rate of inflation over the last 20 years, a study done by the Government Accountability Office has found.

According to the College Board, the average college student spent between $805 and $1,229 on books and supplies alone during the 2007-08 school year. In the National Association of College Stores’ 2008 Student Watch Survey of Student Attitudes & Buying Habits, students surveyed estimated they spent $702 on required course materials annually. Required Course Materials include: printed texts (both new and used), electronic textbooks, and course packs and customized materials.

And though pressure from educational publishers prompted the host of a major textbook-sharing web site to pull the plug on its service earlier this month, legal experts say that’s just the beginning of what could become a protracted campaign by the publishing industry to end the sharing of copyrighted texts online–much as the recording industry has tried to do with music file-sharing on college campuses.

So far, publishers have limited their efforts to targeting offending web sites, similar to how the recording industry tried to shut down Napster and other music-sharing web sites earlier this decade.

But if the campaign to curb textbook file-sharing follows the same arc as that of the music industry’s efforts, it’s possible this movement could shift its focus onto the students themselves who download or make available copyrighted texts online–especially as publishers realize how hard it is to keep up with an ever-changing lineup of textbook-sharing web sites.

After more than a year of enabling students to scan, share, and download textbook content online, free of charge, Textbook Torrent–the largest and most high-profile of these textbook-sharing web sites–was no longer online as of press time.

Textbook Torrent reportedly offered more than 5,000 textbooks for downloading in PDF format, complete with their original layout and full-color illustrations. Users of the site could download and share these documents in the same fashion that music and movies have been shared in the past–through the peer-to-peer file-sharing system BitTorrent.

In June, Pearson Education requested that Textbook Torrent remove 78 of the company’s titles from the site, and the site administrator complied. Then, earlier this month, the site disappeared from the web altogether.

Students and other web users who go to are now redirected to, a web site containing nothing more than a link to’s portal for buying and selling new and used textbooks online.

But that might not be the end of the web site for good. An internet search for "Textbook Torrent" turned up an archived web page with the following message:

"I have some more bad news for you: we’ve had our server pulled out from under us. Call it a ‘personality conflict’ with our former new host–apparently they’re not too happy with hosting a BitTorrent tracker, particularly one that has has [sic] been getting so much recognition of late. The good news is that all sensitive information has been securely erased from the server and we were able to back everything up, supplementing our automatic daily backups. What’s more, thanks to a generous offer from a fellow tracker administrator, we will be rooming with another tracker until we can find more permanent accomodations [sic].

"Choosing a server in the U.S. was a mistake, and I should have known better. I’m sorry for that. We will be moving to a more permanent server prior to the August/September rush, so be ready for that. … In the meantime, please turn DHT/peer sharing on in your BitTorrent clients, which should keep your torrents ticking along nicely. …

"That’s all for now, folks. I’ll keep you posted. We will be back soon. C’mon, people. It’s not the end of the world."

Ed McCoyd, director of digital policy at the Association of American Publishers (AAP), released a statement July 22 noting that textbook publishers are actively enforcing their copyrights. The organization hired an outside law firm earlier this summer to search the internet for textbooks that are being offered illegally.

"AAP is vigilant in searching for copyright violations, and when sites are found that infringe, no matter the genre, the association and publishers will notify web site operators and internet service providers about the infringements and request that they be immediately removed. This has proven to be an effective approach," McCoyd said.

In February, Pearson Education–along with McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons Inc., and Cengage Learning Inc. (formerly Thomson Learning)–settled a trademark and copyright infringement lawsuit against the owner and operator of

The lawsuit alleged that the site enabled sales of pirated educational materials and foreign manufactured editions of textbooks that were not authorized for sale in North America. As part of the settlement, ValoreBooks was prohibited from selling and distributing any pirated electronic copies of the publishers’ works.

"The complaint against Valore and this settlement underscore the firm commitment by these publishers to protect their own intellectual property rights and the rights of their author," Ronald G. Dove Jr., an attorney representing the publishers, said in a press release.

"Businesses and individuals should know that the publishers will continue to pursue legal action against those who violate their intellectual property rights, including those web site operators who may not themselves directly infringe the publishers’ rights, but who provide internet marketplaces that permit and assist others in doing so."

Web sites such as Scribd and Demonoid also enable users to upload and share many types of files–and a search of these sites revealed several copyrighted textbooks as of press time.

One user on Demonoid was offering 50 architecture books, including copyrighted titles such as Assessing Building Performance and Modern Bamboo Architecture, in one torrent. Another user was offering several math, science, and engineering textbooks, such as Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers and How Math Explains the World.

Scribd, a free, web-based document sharing community and self-publishing platform, enables anyone to publish, distribute, share, and discover documents of all kinds. All a user has to do is sign up for a free account and provide an eMail address.

Scribd appears to take copyrights seriously; it has a section that reads, in part: "It is our policy to respond to clear notices of alleged copyright infringement that comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In addition, we will promptly terminate without notice the accounts of those determined by us to be ‘repeat infringers.’"

Even so, a quick search of Scribd using the term "textbook" revealed at least a few copyrighted works–including all 2,227 pages of Brunner & Suddarth’s Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing, 10th edition, which had been viewed 1,075 time as of press time.

Scribd spokesman Jason Bentley said there is no way, either technically or practically, to guarantee that copyrighted material is never uploaded or shared online. But, besides promptly removing copyrighted materials that are called to its attention, Scribd also uses an automated copyright filter that searches each file as it is uploaded for key words that could indicate a copyright violation.

"The filter is still in beta, but improves every day," Bentley said.

Soaring textbook costs haven’t just spawned a new illicit trade–they’ve also encouraged a movement toward using free and open textbooks on campus.

Open Text Book, run by the Open Knowledge Foundation, is an online registry of textbooks and related materials that are free for anyone to use and distribute through a Creative Commons license or similar agreement.

Besides serving as an online repository for free and open textbooks, the site also links to other open-textbook initiatives, such as the California Open-Source Textbook Project, the Free Textbook Project, Rice University’s Connexions project (see "Rice builds body of knowledge"), and Wikibooks.

This fall, a start-up enterprise called Flat World Knowledge will conduct what it calls "the nation’s largest test of open college textbooks." The nationwide beta test involves hundreds of students from 15 colleges and universities, who will use Flat World’s free and open textbooks in a single class or section at each school. The beta test begins next month and will run through the end of the fall semester, Flat World said.

"The traditional textbook publishing model no longer serves the interests of students, educators, and authors," said Jeff Shelstad, co-founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge and former editorial director for Prentice Hall’s business publishing division.

"Textbooks are too expensive for students and too inflexible for instructors," Shelstad said. "And authors–the major, initial source of value in the industry–are increasingly confused by faster revision demands and their compensation for those revisions. Flat World addresses all of these industry pain points."

Flat World’s books will be open for faculty to customize and available to students free of charge online. Flat World and its authors will earn their money by offering supplemental materials to students beyond the free online book–from printed, on-demand textbooks for around $30, to audio books for around $25, to downloadable and printable files by chapter. The company also will sell low-priced study aids, such as podcast study guides, digital flash cards, and interactive practice quizzes.

Of course, open textbooks will be successful only if colleges and their faculty choose to use them instead of pricier, more traditional options.

Toward this end, the Student Public Interest Research Groups, a nonprofit student advocacy network, has been pushing for open textbooks since 2003, USA Today reports.

The groups’ Make Textbooks Affordable campaign has been gathering signatures for an Open Textbook Statement of Intent, which asks faculty to consider using open textbooks. As of press time, the statement reportedly had collected more than 1,200 signatures from college faculty in all 50 states.

Meanwhile, Scribd’s Bentley offered a bit of advice for students.

"The big publishers are far less interested in addressing the root causes of textbook piracy–such as egregious cost–than they are in finding out who you are and making an example out of you," he said.

"Do not assume that, because you have an electronic version of a textbook, it’s OK to share it on the internet. Save your sob stories about how you came from a single-parent, blue-collar family on loans and how one required textbook costs more than your rent and food budget combined. That’s not the point. … Don’t share your textbooks."

Assistant Editor Meris Stansbury and Managing Editor Dennis Pierce contributed to this report.


National Association of College Stores

Association of American Publishers

Open Knowledge Foundation

Flat World Knowledge LLC

Make Textbooks Affordable

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