Stealing Textbooks is Now OK, and it’s the Big Publishers’ Fault
August 26, 2010
(Editor’s note: Andrew Bender is the President of Eleven Learning. His regular blog post, “These Go To Eleven,” appears periodically.)
Lifehacker recently posted some tips for saving money on textbooks. One suggestion was to photocopy them. The writer made no mention of any legal or moral concerns about doing this.
My immediate reaction was that Gawker bloggers will do pretty much anything in order to get page views. (See: Gizmodo and the iPhone 4.)
Let me get this out of the way: at Eleven Learning, our livelihoods are based on respect for intellectual property. If stuff costs money, we think people should either pay for it or do without.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to discuss why a big chunk of society sometimes decides it’s OK to stop paying for stuff.
This isn’t a phenomenon unique to the academic publishing industry. It’s old news to anyone in the music business. And many years ago—back in 1991, according to IMDB—I watched an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer decides to steal cable.
That clip got me thinking about the defenses people use to justify their actions. Here are a few that I’ve heard. (I’m not going to attempt to refute them; I just want to discuss them.)
I was never going to buy this, so I’m not depriving anyone of a sale if I download it.
This seems to be a popular justification for music piracy, and I suspect it’s not infrequently the truth. I’ve never witnessed anyone use it to defend the downloading of textbooks from torrent sites, though.
I would be happy to pay the artist, but it’s the giant greedy faceless corporations that really make all the money.
Again, I get this a lot more about music than books.
This stuff is priced way higher than it costs to produce. I’d pay a fair price, but not this price.
This is what I hear most often on the textbook front. People feel they’re getting screwed.
And it’s the Big Publishers’ fault. For years they’ve told consumers that books cost a boatload of money to print, but content was cheap to generate. For instance, textbooks themselves are priced spectacularly high, while the online add-ons are often FWB, or “Free With Book.” As a result, people expect e-textbooks to cost pennies on the dollar.
The truth, of course, is just the opposite: the variable cost of printing is peanuts, but the fixed cost of producing quality content is out of control. The ridiculously short amortization schedule makes things even worse: a publisher might spend $1 million developing an intro biology title but have only 3 semesters to recoup its costs before Chegg and the used book marketplace wipe out all the sales. The end result: $200 bio books.
Honestly, I don’t know how the Big Publishers are going to get themselves out of this hole they’ve dug. I know what we’re doing to avoid it, though.
(Attention lawyers, music execs, and psychologists: We are not experts on this stuff. We welcome your opinion.)