Internet Textbook Businesses Could Help Curb Textbook Piracy

Funding for higher education has always been a touchy topic for politicians.  While few dispute that an educated population is beneficial for society, it is often less clear who should foot the bill for this benefit.  Of course, a large part of the cost is tuition, but more and more, the costs of textbooks are beginning to factor in.  A Toronto Star article recently observed that a common method of reducing these costs is to photocopy entire textbooks.  Although students often argue that this is the only way they can afford these books, this may not necessarily be the case as there are many internet businesses which may allow cost savings without breaking copyright law. 

The primary rationale advanced by the students is that textbooks are becoming more and more expensive, and that absent such copying, students would be forced to eat ‘spaghetti for dinner every night’.  (As a student, I can certainly empathize with such a position.  However, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve also heard on more than one occasion that “college students seem to always find money for beer”.) 

Additionally, it is lamented that publishers take advantage of students by releasing new editions with miniscule changes so that students are forced to buy new texts instead of using older editions available on the used-book market. 

Regardless of the rationales, it seems most are willing to admit that the act of piracy itself is illegal or is somehow wrong.

How then can students legally reduce their textbook costs in the face of an annual 6 per cent increase in textbook prices?  Posted about a year ago, one blogger outlined 3 websites that help students save money by attempting to change the status quo with respect to how textbooks are currently distributed.  Briefly, they are as follows: aims to pull together free educational materials and convince teachers and professors to use them. provides an Expedia-like comparison shopping experience to help students to find the lowest price for commonly required texts. provides a textbook rental service.

Since the Internet is a more effective and inexpensive publishing medium, a further possibility is connecting authors directly with students to cut out the expenses of printing and distribution.

These examples demonstrate the many ways that the Internet can help to legally address the rising costs of textbooks.  These solutions will likely not completely erase the economic benefit of piracy to the student, but they may help reduce costs to a point where piracy is not resorted to. 


  1. Providing textbooks on the Internet is certainly an interesting alternative that could potentially cut students’ textbook costs and thus piracy. However, if the internet is to have a significant effect on piracy, the services offered must be more convenient to students than the traditional school bookstores. The traditional bookstores offer a listing of each course and the required readings. They also have a convenient return policy and is usually at a convenient location.

    Internet textbook services could easily be made more convenient than a traditional bookstore. Firstly, if a student is to use to rent her textbooks, for example, then the service must provide sufficient copies for all students in a given school. This might not be very hard since one electronic copy could be distributed to unlimited number of students. Secondly, the service is very convenient because it allows a student to access the copy of the book instantaneously and to make payments via a credit card. This would certainly save the student the long wait on the line at the beginning of each semester. Furthermore, if rentals are less expensive than photocopying then it is unlikely that students would prefer to waste more time and money photocopying their textbooks. Thus Internet textbook services could save students a lot of money and time while reducing piracy.

  2. I agree with both of your comments on Internet textbook services and their relative advantages over traditional bookstores. Having been one of the many students who have been paying for really expensive books since the undergraduate years (i.e. for the last 4 years of engineering school and now at law school), I have always thought and opted for alternative methods of textbooks supply.
    While I had a successful time ordering cheap paperback versions of the hardcover textbooks from other countries like India and China, I believe the reason behind the extreme differences in the prices has something to do with the price of paper in Canada as well.
    Whether that is a good assumption or not, I feel that the authors and publishers could try and move away from the traditional process of publishing books as hardcopies and instead try and make the content available as CDs. While this saves the paper printing costs, it can also provide a solution to the problem of revisions and changes in the editions. As pointed out by Julian, most of the time the differences in the editions are miniscule but still pressingly demand that students go and buy the newer editions. By using technology, maybe in the form of updates or some additional software, the new revised changes can be incorporated / appended to the older editions of the textbook with ease in a CD/ softcopy format (similar to the idea of weekly or monthly virus updates), thus avoiding the need to incur additional costs in buying everything new.

  3. I think (*hope*) the solution to this problem will come over the next 5 or so years as better ‘digital ink’ wifi ebook readers come out and drop in price. Amazon’s kindle is a good step forward but it’s still designed to read things like novels with very little print per page.

    However, other products are out or launching that have bigger displays capable of showing ordinary 8.5×11 size pages that are much better suited for the heavy duty reading of a textbook. See for example the existing IRex WS1000 ( and the hotly anticipated reader from plastic logic (

    Getting materials through these devices has all the benefits of electronic textbooks (no need to carry stock, on demand ‘printing’, cheap distribution, easy to keep current, etc) and replicates the familiar nice feel of reading a printed text/print outs.

    As an aside, just wait for these light weight, larger format readers to spread in the legal profession. Imagine loading those 10, 30 page cases you needed to go over onto one of these instead of being tied to your computer or wasting a giant stack of printed paper!

    Hopefully most publishers are already preparing for when the next generation of these readers are ready to hit the market.

  4. I think that the whole problem is that textbooks are overpriced. I think that some solutions that could work include:

    * Allow legitimate PDF and Ebook downloaded versions of Textbooks for a cheaper price.

    * Professors could self publish books and allow students to download assignments and texts in PDF format with just those chapters needed for that specific course that is included in the price of that course.

    * Publishers allow less expensive versions of textbooks that are sold as paperbacks.

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