Opportunity missed to prevent textbook piracy

More and more students are resorting to piracy to get their textbooks, and who can blame them?

Textbook piracy is apparently on the rise, according to the results of an August 2014 study released by the U.S. trade association Book In­dustry Study Group.

But what does that really mean? I think it says a lot more about publishers than it does about students.

When we were all given unfet­tered Internet access, we all got a chance to learn who we really are, and it turns out a lot of us are pi­rates.

But I’ve never seen piracy as a problem. It’s just a response to in­convenience, like having to go the store for the physical version of a digital something, or a perceived unfairness, like high prices.

Take music piracy, for example. When song-downloading program Napster exploded in 1999, it wasn’t filled with illegitimate copies of ex­isting digital products. No, people were ripping their CDs into MP3 files themselves. Why? Because a lot of us enjoyed listening to music on our computers and didn’t want to fuddle with a stack of CDs to do it. It was a solid mix of conve­nient and accessible, and few of us stopped to consider the ethics of the situation in the face of nearly unlimited access to vast music li­braries. Who could stop it, anyway?

In 2003, the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) gave it a shot. The RIAA took the IP addresses of downloaders, subpoenaed service providers for customer informa­tion, and then sought settlement, sometimes claiming damages of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thankfully that whole mess was avoided in Canada, but that’s an­other story.

In that same year, Apple opened the iTunes music store, and then five years later, while the RIAA still going after illegal downloaders, Apple staked its claim as the top music retailer in the United States, surpassing Wal-Mart.

But the entertainment revolution didn’t really apply to print in gen­eral, let alone textbooks. The rise of e-readers has been somewhat underwhelming in terms of what it’s done for digital book sales, and that’s especially true for digital ver­sions of textbooks. If you can even find the digital version of the text­book you’re looking for, it’s prob­ably not much cheaper, and that’s because textbook publishers don’t want to cut themselves out of the print game. A $200 price tag is a little crazy on a thick and heavy full-colour textbook, but it’s down­right absurd on an e-book down­load.

There’s a saying in tech circles that “information wants to be free.” This can obviously be interpreted a number of ways, but I think it’s es­pecially appropriate when looking at textbooks.

Well, students want it to be free, too. Paying $1,000 or more per year for books alone is an expense every student would like to drop. With the advent of open textbooks, it looks like that might one day be a possibility, though adoption is slow and the options are still sparse.

The phenomenon of illegal music downloading was a hard knock on the head for the entertainment in­dustry, and while it certainly made some of the people it hit stupider, it also inspired innovators to do two things at once: fill a commer­cial void and provide a convenient service.

Here’s hoping that textbook publishers receive that same knock on the head.

At any rate, this whole thing hap­pened backwards. The entertain­ment media revolution shouldn’t have happened before textbooks and learning resources revolution. We put entertainment before ed­ucation. That’s our mistake. But wouldn’t you rather hear people complaining about an abundance of free books on their e-reader in­stead of people complaining about U2’s latest album being forced onto their iPods? I think I would.