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In his final years, Apple founder Steve Jobs set his sights on the "digital destruction" of the $10 billion textbook market, promising to do for course materials what iTunes had done for music. With the high price of textbooks, Jobs knew students were ripe for the picking.
His ideal customer might have been Cameron Brown, an affable college junior studying to become a physical education teacher. Equipped with an iPad, smart phone, MP3 player, and laptop, the 24-year-old is already a practiced pirate.
"Textbooks are way too expensive," he says, huddled among friends in front of Brooklyn's St. Francis College. Everyone nods in agreement. "But if you're willing to put in the effort, you can find free PDFs of books posted online. I know it's illegal, but times are hard."
Textbook piracy is on the rise, spurred by the expense of course materials and the popularity of computer tablets and e-readers. Some in the publishing industry have likened the proliferation of book-sharing sites to the launch of Napster a decade ago. But learning from the missteps of the music industry, textbook publishers have been quick to embrace the new technology.
Academic publishing remains lucrative, generating more revenue than consumer trade presses. The world's largest publisher, Pearson, owns such high-profile assets as Penguin books and the Financial Times, but education accounts for 80 percent of its operating profit. In the U.S., prices for new college textbooks have increased 8.5 percent over the past year, five times the overall rate of inflation. The National Association of College Stores puts the average price of a new textbook at $62 and the average student's total book tab at an annual $655; last year, a typical student at a public university shelled out nearly twice that for textbooks and related supplies, says the College Board.
Yet the textbook business is already facing Internet-era challenges. Publishers have lost market share to online used-book vendors, including powerful wholesalers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Many resellers rent textbooks, too. Free search engines, such as eBay's half.com, can now locate the cheapest editions from vendors around the globe. As a result, students now spend about 7 percent less on printed textbooks than in 2009, according to NACS.
Then there are the pirates. Publishers claim online piracy contributes to higher prices by undercutting profitability and re-directing their resources to monitoring and enforcement. But you won't find many people shedding tears on campuses. Even professors routinely distribute copyrighted materials without permission, assisted by online course-management systems like Blackboard and university document services, which will copy (and sometimes bind) selections. Teachers claim fair use protection because they're not using a substantial amount of each book, but in 2008, the Association of American Publishers sued Georgia State University for "systematically" enabling the practice. Ultimately, publishers didn't get a lot of sympathy in court, either. A judge rejected the publishers' demands last May as "burdensome and expensive"—and, in a sharp rebuke, ruled they should pay the school's legal fees. (The publishers have appealed.)
Until recently, the industry's war on piracy has been focused on shutting down the numerous websites devoted to the illegal trading of textbooks. No one went after the users of BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer file-sharing software employed by sites like the Pirate Bay to offer free copies of everything from movies and music to games and software.
That changed last year, when John Wiley and Sons, one of the largest textbook publishers, began to sue dozens of BitTorrent users in New York, charging them with illegally sharing copies of books from Wiley's popular "For Dummies" series. (Defendants were identified via their IP addresses.) This summer, a judge ordered one defendant to pay $7,000 for sharing a copy of WordPress All-in-One for Dummies.
Ernesto van der Sar, editor of the news site torrentfreak.com, wonders what took publishers so long to go after BitTorrent users, when film companies alone have sued more than 200,000 people in the U.S. since 2010 for sharing copyrighted works online.
"They probably didn't realize it was a problem for them until recently," van der Sar says. "It's very easy to share books. A PDF is a few megabytes—people can even e-mail it. I'm not totally convinced [Wiley] wants to take it so far. [File sharing] will be hard to stop. They probably want to set a few examples and hope not many people start these textbook-oriented sites."
When it comes to textbooks, pirates like to swashbuckle, flying the flag of Robin Hood to bring free content to the masses in attacking what they see as monopolistic profiteers in cahoots with universities.
One of the largest of these sites, Library Pirate, boasted 1,700 textbooks, searchable by subject. It even encouraged students to pool their resources to send gift certificates for e-book rentals to the site, which would then strip the rented copies of their publisher's security codes. To avoid capture, Library Pirate set up shop in the Ukraine and later moved to Montenegro. "Our mission is simple," read a statement on the site. "To revolutionize the digital e-textbook industry and change it permanently."
Library Pirate shut down a couple of months ago, notes van der Sar. "Publishers are protective of their content, so they send a lot of take-down messages, and hosting companies respond. It's hard to keep a site online if you don't know what you're doing."