Professor's patent strangles textbook sharing on and offline

Professor's patent strangles textbook sharing on and offline

Summary: Students who don't buy in to the scheme can expect lower grades.

TOPICS: Piracy

The realm of academic file-sharing is notorious -- is it legal to share these notes, and this is alright because we need it for the course but it's no longer in print, right? Students sharing textbooks, presentations and notes facilitated by Facebook's new Group feature came to mind -- but now, going beyond the realms of copyright infringement, it may go so far as to lower your grades.

A new patent has been granted to economics professor Joseph Henry Vogel, who is dead-set on stopping the "infringing" behaviour of devious students who share or lend textbooks -- whether off or online.

After all, gaining a college degree is business. But how do you make sure those miscreants don't go and share their coursebooks? Easy -- if you do, we lower your grade.

It works in this manner; a student must buy an online access code to sign up compulsory elements of a class. The code is purchased through buying the coursebook.

In possession of this code, you're allowed to use the course book and access restricted parts of your course. If you lend or resell, then those without the code will have their academic achievements lowered.

No code, and you cannot participate in online discussion boards, secured through the access barrier and naturally a compulsory part of a course. No sign in? Shame -- here's X percent off your grade.

Vogel wrote:

"Professors are increasingly turning a blind eye when students appear in class with photocopied pages. Others facilitate piracy by placing texts in the library reserve where they can be photocopied."

Piracy, lending and reselling are threats to the publishing industry, the professor believes. Piracy might be, but surely stopping a student from taking a book from a library is going too far?

No, apparently not. If you purchase a second-hand book, no problem -- you can buy the access code for a "discount" rate.

Naturally, publishers are rubbing their hands in glee at the idea of being able to charge multiple times for a single book. Anthem Press of London is one such publisher who is interested in the simple, albeit restrictive system.

Less money for publishers, less opportunity for professors to be published. However, attacking the centuries-old lending system for books because it's possible to get a few outdated and probably irrelevant textbooks through torrents might be going too far.

Image credit: Nate Bolt


Topic: Piracy

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  • Been there, done that

    I was a college instructor for about 10 years before moving into IT, so I've been witness to the games publishers play to try and undermine the used textbook market. Every three or four years, a publisher will bring out a new edition of a textbook expressly with the goal of obsoletting the pool of used textbooks floating around. Now, pehaps in the fast-changing sciences and technology fields, bringing out new textbooks with this regularity has some justification. But I taught Spanish, and the language simply isn't evolving fast enough to justify anything like that. Moreover, the changes are trivial. A picture is swapped out for a new picture. An exercise with 10 problems is swapped out for an exercise with 15 problems. The important thing is to change the page numbering so that students can't "make do" with the old textbook.

    In some ways, though, what's happening with textbooks is simply mirrroring the broader trends in publishing: back when a book was a physical block of paper or music came on CD's it was easy enough to re-sell them. But once the books is nothing more than a DRM's digital file, it becomes impossible to re-sell. And as for digital music, re-selling your old digital files is, at best, ethically questionable, given that few are likely to actually delete the original file from their computer/MP3 player.
  • Student strikes and antitrust issues

    This assumes there will be no student strikes and no one will raise any antitrust issues. There are a LOT of students now with relatives or friends of relatives who are attorneys and would be salivating at a large class-action suit.

    Not to mention that in New York the standard road to the governership is to become Attorney General and then sue the "big players" in some major industry (such as the investment bankers or insurers) so you can say you "cleaned up" a particular industry. Textbook publishers ... hmm ....

    Everyone in the university education system realizes the way to REALLY make money is to get to the point where you're a full professor and then write a textbook for an introductory course such as Introduction to Western History for a required "core" course and get the university to use that as the textbook. Now, with the ability so self-publish electronically, that would be even easier.
    • You are ignoring a large part of the "College" experience

      Your comments have some merit in the context of big University schools. However, many kids are going to Community College to get an Associates degree before paying the big bucks for a large private or State University.

      In these Community College courses, most used "canned" curricula. That is the course materials are purchased and tied to textbook required for the course. An integral part of the course is a CD that is included in the ~$100+ textbook. There is no "Professor" per se, just an instructor that checks that you are making progress and tallies the points from activities and quizzes in the book's CD. Purchasing a used textbook is very risky as one does not know if the CD is included or damaged. You cannot complete the course work and get a satisfactory grade without the CD that is quite illegal to copy.

      A new textbook from the schools bookstore or even Amazon may be well in excess of $100. A used textbook may be as little as $35. Either price is well beyond the cost of prining these texts but they can charge that because it is and is intended to stay a monopoly market.

      If this sounds like a method to insure steady revenue from those least able to afford it, then you realize the actual problem that already exists. This "Economics" Professor is just trying to "cash in" on an ongoing scheme. As sad as that sounds, it would make him one of the best "Eco" Prof's I have ever heard of.
      • What community college are you going to?

        The one my daughter goes to has professors that stand in front of the class and teach. Perhaps you refer to online courses?
    • I agree, to a point

      Actually, textbook royalties aren't particularly lucrative. You make SOME money getting your university to adopt your textbook. But you really don't make a LOT of money until a LOT of universities adopt your textbook. Really, the author does deserve to see some compensation for his hard work in compiling what he feels (rightly or wrongly) is the preeminent authoritative work in his area of expertise. If he is right, he gets paid. Just like John Irving or any other author. If he isn't, well, its just another obsolete textbook. Saying that his profit is unfair is, well, unfair. He deserves to see compensation for his work. Another way to look at it is, if he ISN'T compensated for his work, why would he spend the time to write it in the first place? Where and how will the new textbooks come forth when they are needed if no one has any incentive at all to write them?

      The first commenter is correct: in many fields, we don't need 2 year republishing cycles. That has gotten insane. Even in the sciences, introductory courses are relatively stable. What does change is the logic and flow of the presentation, and new instructional modalities are always attempted by authors, some of which are real improvements on what has been done in the past. Those won't come about if we succumb to endless cycles of used books and papers. In some ways, the current hugely successful used book business is to blame for the two-year revision cycle. With new textbook sales plummeting, you have to issue new versions faster to make up the marketing shortfall. When I was in college, we rented books from the University, and turned them into the bookstore at the end of the semester. No one minded. Today, with Google reaping untold profits on the turnover in books, and college bookstores buying back books at $0.50 on the dollar, there isn't much left over for the new market. There are plenty of parallel markets to look at the function in much the same way (pianos and generic pharmaceuticals come immediately to mind). That isn't to say there isn't greed, nor that the cost of textbooks today is not way too high.

      It costs a lot more money than you think to compile, verify, proofread, and print a 700 page textbook in full color. Really. Notice that most of the conferences you attend are not distributing the program anymore? Sure, they TELL you it is because you have all this wonderful new technology that makes the pain of carrying a 5 pound program obsolete. Truth is, it simply costs too much to print. It is actually cheaper to pay a developer at 75-100 dollars an hour to create a mobile and kiosk presence for each conference than to print programs for 1000 participants. Even for 10,000 participants. You want to make textbooks affordable again? Make them the way they actually were 30 years ago. No color. Nothing over about 300 pages. If you can't do it in that length, break it into volumes. As technology has progressed, we have demanded fancier and fancier books because someone has rightfully assessed the quality of human nature that believes that the slickest display of information is the best one to buy. We all assume that if you want to really get your point across to the student, you have to wow them with color, and sidebars, and integrated problem solving. No studies showing any of it works, by the way, and some inferential studies that show it may actually interfere. But we do it all anyway, because that is the way information display has gone in the last 30 years. You want to affect change? Get the authors to start publishing the way we used to.

      But you overlook an even easier way to undo this rediculous action by this professor. The patent is absurd. It isn't even original. Overturn the patent. Much simpler. I can't believe this patent was issued at all. It is an infringement on copyright fair use, and it is something that the publishers have already been doing for years (online homework and course content unlocked by code). The only difference is that he is doing it himself, rather than the publisher. That isn't patentable, unless there is something more fundamentally new in this patent. Stupid. It can't stand.
  • Threaten Future School Donations

    I'm not saying copying text books is right. However, this requirements seems to cross the line. Students shouldn't be able purchase a used textbook without suffering consequences.

    Here is what I would recommend. If you attend a school that buys into these shinanigans, make a public committment never to give money to said school after graduation.

    When they do call, and they will, to "keep you up to date" on what's going on at the school, and "oh by the way, would you like to donate?" Mention how the school did you no favors as an undergraduate with the textbooks, etc. and how you'll be sending your donations elsewhere.

    Maybe if enough people acted this way, schools would treat their undergraduates better. Maybe the threat won't have an immediate effect, but if enough people did it, and the reasons were clear why there were no donations, maybe the schools would think twice before handing down things like this.
  • Lawsuits coming! (nt)

  • Heaven forbid we should share knowledge

    Pretty soon, authors/professors will begin to lay claim to anything a student writes or says independently because they would never have been able to come up with it without learning from the book/class on the subject. These supposed intellectuals have wedged themselves in as usurers of potential - 'if you don't give me even more money than you already are, I will tank your grades and you'll never get a good career.' All that's missing is the maniacal laughter.
  • it seems all wrong to me

    Haven gotten my education outside of US, this whole college textbook business seems so stange to me.
    I understand the publishers, but I do not understand the college professors.
    A person goes to college and pays for the education. Why textbooks are not a part of the overall fee? What is the professor's cut out the $60 price of the book? Wouldn't it be easier to just charge an additional $20 per course, and forget about copywriting headaches?
    • re: it seems all wrong to me

      $60? The cheapest book (published in 2005, for a course last year) I've purchased for college was $37 used, or go to Barnes & Noble and pay $35 for a new book. My book for this semester was $189 new which includes access to additional content, or $140 used plus $120 to access the additional content, that is required.
  • Are the libraries evil too?

    In Europe it is normal to borrow most of the course books from university's library w/o any fee. And yes, I remember some math books were 7 years old, but those things do not change in centuries...

    Libraries made education more accessible, now we want to go backwards...
    Tomas M.
  • If he wants an extra fee for profit...

    This smacks of charging for money simpley to give a grade. I wonder what the university will do when challenged about are they having students pay to have a passing grade a la the "papermill" schools. I think this has huge ethics issues and is on a very slippery slope.

    If he needs the money so bad then it should be listed as a required course fee, not part of a book and have nothing to do with the student grade.
  • Author author!

    Bet ya that this professor is the author of a text book and he's just pi$$ed that he isn't earning as much off of it as he thinks he should.
  • Sutdents should boycott classes with those requirments

    or boycott Universities that allow them. If the punitive professor's classes are not attended, they will be replaced with classes that are. The whole higher education system is breaking down, and the text book system is one of the bigger cracks in the system!

    dsf3g - That is exactly right! Nobody needs a 17th edition algebra book. Algebra doesn't change!
  • text books

    Vote with you feet. If you are one of his students or their parent. You pay him, tell the school you want out of his classes and why. You are the customer. If you refuse to buy his product his experiment fails.
  • Bleh

    What a creep.
  • killing the Goose that laid the Golden Egg

    This filthy bit of money-grubbing barbarism flies in the face of a millennium of Scholarship. I???ve read a letter from the 800???s, in which a French abbot thanks an Italian bishop for sending a copy of the Iliad for his library, offers a copy of work by Aristotle in return: because the copies were single & rare, & that was the only way to work. Hasn???t Vogel ever heard about the free exchange of knowledge? Here too open the Gates of Hell....
    Kootenay Coyote
  • Sorry, I thought College was about LEARNING!

    This is just another reason why our society is going into the dumps. Greedy Colleges, Greedy Professors, Greedy Booksellers, Greedy publishers, all trying to make an extra buck out of nowhere.

    I agree with most of the people here, make it a point to get out of his classes, and boycott them. You let this keep going, and it will only get worse.
  • Education is not the point

    Making money is. Students are the target market.

    Compare with the medical industry and sick people.
  • Decline and Fall

    Go to the library and get a copy of Gibbons' "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". As you read it, just think 'American' everywhere it says 'Roman'. God was wrong; He should have given the Dinosaurs another chance.