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Downloading textbooks on the sly

Typing on a laptop

TEXT OF STORY

Renita Jablonski: The College Board says students last year doled out an average of $800 to $1,200 for text books and supplies. A lot of students try to get by with used books. Publishers in turn put out new editions. So now some students are doing the same thing with books they do with music, ripping them off from file-sharing Web sites. Katie Macpherson has more from New York.


Nick: I found this one a couple of weeks ago.

Katie Macpherson: In his dorm room at New York University, 19-year-old Nick is logging onto a Web site called Textbook Torrent. He's checking to see if any of the books for his fall courses have been copied and posted.

Nick: I download most of my music, I download almost all of my movies and so downloading textbooks just seems like the next logical step.

Nick didn't want to use his full name; downloading copyrighted material without permission is illegal. But like other college students, he's sick of dropping hundreds of dollars each semester on books.

Nick: I feel kind of cheated every time I go to the bookstore.

Not paying a lot for books is the primary motivation behind Textbook Torrent. More than 80,000 users have signed up to download scanned copies of text books, often breaking copyright laws. A computer programmer who goes by the name "Geekman" launched the site last year.

Geekman: I'm not sure I'd say I'm the Robin Hood, but I know I'm operating in a legal gray area here, and I'm certainly appreciative of the fact that not everybody's going to agree with what we're doing.

Particularly, the Association of American Publishers, whose members print over 85 percent of all college textbooks sold. They've sent take-down notices threatening legal action to Textbook Torrent and dozens of other file-sharing sites. Ed McCoyd is director of digital policy. He says he doesn't think expensive textbook prices are encouraging illegal downloads.

Ed McCoyd: I think it's just part of people liking to get things for free. I don't see this as some outcropping of the cost of books.

But economics professor James V. Koch of Old Dominion University says the textbook market is broken. There's little competition and students often have no choice but to spend top dollar on required books. He wants to see schools develop alternatives like textbook rental systems. But that's not likely to happen.

James V. Koch: ... until scholarly associations or boards of trustees actively get into this and say, "you know, this market's not working to the benefit of students."

Meanwhile, publishers seem to have gotten the hint. Some have already begun providing discounted digital copies of textbooks.

In New York, I'm Katie Macpherson, for Marketplace.

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jbrendan o'donnell:

i find it very insulting that you think all university students are a bunch of no good party animals.

perhaps the school you went to was like that, but a good portion of students study very hard to achieve their goals.

you think it's fair that students in north america are charged more than twice the amount students in other coutries pay?

i was shocked to find a textbook that i paid $150 for $40 from a seller in India. The only difference is it's a soft cover and is called the "international edition."
what a ripoff! the publishers deserve to screwed over.

I second Anne's comment. Aside from his profoundly insulting generalizations regarding college students, Mr. O'Donnell seems to be very distant from the economic realities of college, and shifting responsibility onto the students is nothing more than changing the subject.

In my college career, I've had numerous professors with the exact same complaints as many students have. I've personally been in classes where professors:

-- design curricula based on the assumption that many students won't purchase the book (e.g. put every piece of testable information into verbose PowerPoint slides),

-- base their curricula on old editions (so that students can get less expensive used copies),

-- allow student groups that promote direct trade, sale and donation of books to fellow students (cutting out the role of book vendors) to take up some class time in order to advertise their group,

-- privately suggest to students who ask "Do we really need to buy the book?" that they should look for a cut-rate international edition of the text, and

-- encourage a variety of other ways that students can maximize their textbook dollar and cut vendors out of the loop as much as possible.

Are these professors just giving up on the model of the "[institution] of higher learning" as a "[beacon] of higher purpose", or are they addressing the economic realities that impair their ability to educate?

What if these "priviliged [sic] young adults" are spending that "time and money" buying healthy food or working out? Good food can be incredibly expensive and time consuming to prepare; every hour spent in the gym could have been spent doing a campus job. Is taking care of oneself equally bad? It's certainly equally costly (at least).

Furthermore, the numbers don't even work out. A student would have to drink two 24 packs of some inexpensive beer ($15/pack) every week of the academic year, to reach the level of spending you referenced (30 * $30 = $900; cost of inevitable liver transplant not included).

The brutal irony? The students who are putting down 48 beers/week are the least likely to even consider buying the textbook in the first place. It's the GOOD students who actually have to make the tough decisions.

Mr. O'Donnell, As a recent college graduate (and current graduate student) who does not (and did not while in school) drink, smoke, take drugs or otherwise "party" (assuming that attendance my at five-year-old niece's birthday party can be excused), I find your comment flippant and insulting. I can count on one hand the number of drinks I have had in the past two years (one wedding toast, and two New Years Eve parties, as I recall). I bought neither of those beverages. And it is STILL difficult for me to afford textbooks. Yes, many college students spend inordinate (and unwise) amounts of money on unimportant things like booze and partying. However, your facile, reductive comment assumes that most students are similar to the headline grabbing binge-drinkers among us. This assumption is incorrect and, frankly, insulting to the rest of us. Textbook costs ARE unreasonable, and little is being done to ameliorate the situation by authors, publishers, faculty, universities or any of a host of other interested entities. Could many college students learn to manage their money (and lives) in a more appropriate manner? Of course -- and this would make their lives (in both the textbook and non-textbook senses) easier. However, please do not assume that the answer to the widespread, multifacteted, decades-long problem of textbook costs is as simple as telling students to "stop wasting their money on silly things".

I would definitely buy textbooks if they were cheaper. In fact, I am sometimes able to find international editions of the textbooks I need, which cost on the order of 10 dollars + shipping!

Recently, college presidents have asked that we rethink the drinking age in America so their matriculants can safely and legally imbibe. Now, we hear eager learners are disgusted at paying between eight and twelve hundred dollars per year on textbooks and supplies. Perhaps if these priviliged young adults spent less time and money getting drunk, institutions of higher learning would become beacons of higher purpose.

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