Education: where copyrighters and publishers are the pirates

There has been a lot of buzz around both the guilty verdict and now the judge’s alleged conflict of interest in the trial of the Pirate’s Bay operators.

For those not in the now The Pirate’s Bay is a search engine – like Google – that specialized in indexing “BitTorrents,” a file format often used to download movies, tv shows and large quantities of music. Since many of these files contained copyrighted material like Hollywood movies, there was significant interest in shutting down the site.

What is interesting to me is that the music recording industry – which was the first to fight against online file sharing – has always claimed it was working on behalf of starving artists. Fair enough – I too want to ensure that artists are fed and fairly rewarded for their work.

But this is in part what makes a new challenge to the publishing industry so interesting. Now a group of Swedes are enabling students to use file sharing to share educational materials. According to The Local, The Student Bay makes use of software from Rapid Share and encourages students to scan in and upload pages of course literature into an archive that they can then browse and download from.

I suspect that it is here – in the field of education – where file sharers will find the most fertile ground to transforming how media and copyright works. The movie and recording industries have deep pockets and a strong interest in fighting file sharing. Moreover, they will, for a while at least, be able to claim to speak for artists, even as this is less and less the case.

But the educational book industry? They pay professors virtually nothing for their works. Consequently, since most professors make their money from their salary they don’t rely on books as a revenue stream. Their core interest isn’t to make an extra $300-$4000 from a book that took them months to research and write, it is to know that students everywhere are reading and engaging their ideas.

Moreover, here is an industry that gouges its clients. Physics textbooks hardly need to change from year to year (how much has an intro Physics course really changed over the last 5 years? 10 years?). And yet new books, with new page numbers are created to force students to pay outrageous amounts for work that is – essentially – public domain. Even when educational publishers are trying to serve the greater good and introduce a new textbooks, the cost structure is prohibitive. Because of the short print runs of most textbooks, they tend to be expensive simply because margins have to be that much thicker to justify the investment.

In short, try to imagine the awareness campaign against copyright infringement in the educational sector? What % of the $85 for that physics text book we’ve been printing for 25 years really goes to the author or editor? Movies and music can somewhat justify their prices and copyright protection on the basis of fashion and trends. Educational book publishers don’t have that luxury. This is a mode of production that is broken: it is slow, expensive and primarily serves the interests of publishers, not the authors nor the readers. While the public remains uncertain about how to respond to copyright infringement in the entertainment industry I don’t think they are about to rise up and say: Yes! Let’s protect educational book publishers who pay authors nothing, overcharge students for textbooks and increase the cost of education.

And just in case you think the educational publishing industry won’t try to defend its business model, take a look at this story from Finland. Here, the industry is using legal threats to shut down an attempt to facilitate students lending each other books – in essence, creating a perfectly legal and truly “public” library.

Bookabooka doesn’t host any e-books on its site, but instead allows students to rent their textbooks to their peers. Renting is conducted via traditional “snailmail” (i.e. postal service) and it is mandatory that the textbooks are originals (not xeroxed copies). Bookabooka acts only as an intermediate, connecting the students together and doesn’t handle the shipping or returns of the textbooks.

Maybe file sharers will be forced to temporarily retreat, but here in lies fertile ground for the next battle. A battle where file sharing and the use of creative commons license (or no licenses at all) make the most economic and social sense.

11 thoughts on “Education: where copyrighters and publishers are the pirates

  1. Pingback: Education: where copyrighters and publishers are the pirates « MyPage Builder

  2. Harley Young

    Hi, David.Sites like Pirate Bay index torrent files, and provide users (who might use BitTorrent, or uTorrent, or various other P2P clients) with access to distributed information. As you noted in your Bookapedia example, the sites themselves don't actually host content. One of the most pernicious aspects of shutting down P2P networks is that in spite of sites like Pirate Bay (and Google:…) indexing torrent files for lots of music, TV and movies, torrents are also used to trade lots of other material that is not copyright, especially innovative open source software. This is one of the issues at the heart of CRTC's current review of the Internet traffic management practices of ISPs (…). Many Canadian ISPs use a traffic management technology called Deep Packet Inspection ( to limit how customers can use the Internet by discriminating against certain types of traffic. By degrading speed of P2P transfers, carriers limit the usefulness of P2P software. In doing so, they are deciding for all users that watching LOLCats videos on YouTube is more important than doing something such as using a P2P client to download the new release of Ubuntu Linux (via Ubuntu's torrent:, which you'd hoped to use at an afternoon workshop where you're teaching kids digital photo manipulation in Linux.In the last week, there were interesting articles in the NY Times (As Costs Fall, Companies Push to Raise Internet Price:…) and the Economist (Down the tubes-Internet television moves from the computer to the living room:…) suggesting that in spite of a one-time cost of about $7/home for cable companies to DOUBLE internet capacity in a neighbourhood, many carriers were reluctant to make that investment. Why? Even if they could pass the one-time cost on to subscribers, it might cost them lucrative cable revenue. Why pay $60 per month for 100 channels, when you watch only 15 of them and when you can get all your content online via ad-supported or for-pay sites like Hulu and iTunes?

  3. Frank Hecker

    David: Two additional points about textbooks vs. music: There will likely be a critical mass of textbooks and related materials that are under licenses explicitly permitting sharing (from grassroots efforts, institutional open courseware initiatives, and for-profit ventures like Flat World Knowledge), and these materials will likely be comparable in quality to traditional proprietary textbooks.By contrast the amount of legally sharable music (e.g., under a CC license) is a very small fraction of the total, and a lot of it is of relatively low quality and/or has limited popular appeal. That's why the major labels are still able to dictate terms to music-related startups, and thus such startups have had difficulties in building their businesses. By contrast in the educational markets there will likely be enough legally-sharable materials that startups will be able to build interesting businesses without having to kowtow to incumbent publishers.

  4. Jeremy Vernon

    This is something that gets a great deal of thought amongst my peers here at UofT. 5 of the 7 courses I took this year used online materials as a majority of the readings, three of these courses had no dead-tree reading at all. This is definitely more common in the social sciences (with our proliferation of course readers), but I know several comp-sci students whose only textbooks are mass publication O'Reilly books (which they use instead of the freely available online Safari books versions)Elsevier, like the NYT, could make more money giving every student a kindle for free and charging for digital content (buy a chapter rather than book, say) I've talked to quite a few people about it (who ask frequently about my ePaper reader), the reason they buy books is for the readability (screens still suck for prolonged reading). Some Professors I've talked to say that although the semantic content of the textbooks hasn't changed – keeping the material relevant with examples, illustrations and contemporary cultural references (say for psychology textbooks which are perennially dated) is what the newest editions offer.Obviously this is of concern more for sociology than say bio-chemistry. The worst offenders, quizzically, are the mathematics textbooks – these are volumes whose contents literally cannot change (it's deductively closed). Slim books of a measly 100 – 200 pages often range in the hundreds. I would suspect it's to pay the scarce typesetter capable of rendering the formulae accurately.

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  6. Sean Stiller

    Based on what I've read so far in this post and comments, is it safe to presume there's a HUGE profit-margin for educational publishing houses? As Jeremy noted, most people still buy books largely for readability, which is to say downloading free course e-books probably has its limits. One potential outcome (here's hoping) is that this phenomena doesn't kill these publishing houses, but merely, out of necessity, forces them to cut a good deal of their profit margin on the grounds of survival.

  7. Eric Hoefler

    Thanks for this interesting piece. I think you make an important point here. Just a few thoughts …You say: “This is a mode of production that is broken: it is slow, expensive and primarily serves the interests of publishers, not the authors nor the readers.” I would argue that the same is true for the entertainment industry, it's just going to take longer for the majority to recognize it.As with the music industry, the publishing industry has a lot to lose in this. Musicians get screwed by record labels, and the musicians usually benefit much more than they are harmed by file sharing. It's the record labels that are raging against the sharing. Likewise, big-house publishers of over-priced textbooks stand to lose quite a lot as things move online and/or are shared (as you suggest).I agree there will be less of a “moral” leg to stand on in this argument, but I think you're absolutely right that the publishing industry will fight to prevent the huge losses that this kind of change can bring.Still, the valuable texts are usually outside of the big-house textbook companies anyway (at least, for real, worthwhile content). When we start talking about modern fiction and nonfiction writers, then we'll be closer to the analogy to musicians.

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