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.