Study Indicates College Textbook Piracy Is On The Rise, But Fails To Call Out Publishers For Skyrocketing Prices

from the the-best-way-to-replace-'lost'-money-is-to-charge-people-more,-apparentl dept

More college students are pirating textbooks, or so a report seems to indicate even if the methodology seems a little less than solid. The numbers (reported here by Reason) are based on self-reporting from survey respondents, which means the supposed uptick in infringing downloads may actually be a downturn, or nowhere near the actual percentages. But here are the numbers reported by the Book Industry Study Group, which sounds like the entity least likely to receive accurate infringement numbers from survey respondents.

The group surveyed 1,600 students, 25 percent of whom said they or someone they knew illegally downloaded textbooks. That’s up 8 percent from the previous year.

Most likely, this number is low — but the methodology is already suspect. Adding “or someone they knew” makes the results somewhat meaningless without more details. To illustrate, take an extreme hypothetical: on a campus with 100 students, if you have one super popular student who illegally downloads textbooks while everyone else doesn’t, you could have everyone report “they knew” someone who “illegally downloaded,” leading to 100% even as the actual percentage is 1%. Any survey that has a “you or someone you know” in it almost certainly creates a double, triple, quadruple counting problem as there’s no way to distinguish if the “person known” has already been counted in the survey methodology.

Here are some of the “key takeaways” BISG has posted based on these results.

Students report a gradual decline in the use of both core textbooks and learning management systems with a somewhat increased usage of online study guides, suggesting that pedagogical material is becoming more flexible in ways students value.

Students continue to become more sophisticated in acquiring their course materials at the lowest cost as illicit and alternative acquisition behaviors, from scanned copies to illegal downloads to the use of pirated websites, continue to increase in frequency.

The report assumes the self-reported infringement increase is legit, but the key takeaways never point to the main culprit: textbook publishers. Perhaps that’s because these studies were underwritten by those who would be least receptive to open criticism.

BISG thanks Diamond Sponsor MBS Direct, Platinum Sponsors Barnes and Noble College and McGraw-Hill Education, and Gold Sponsors Cengage Learning, Follett Higher Education Group, Pearson, and Blackboard for sponsoring Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education Volume 4 and Cengage Learning and Barnes & Noble College for sponsoring Faculty Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education.

Prices for textbooks border on extortionate. Valerie Strauss, covering the subject for the Washington Post, notes that prices for both tuition and books have increased at unreal rates over the past several years. (It should also be noted that BISG’s report is no bargain — $675 for “summaries” and $3,195 for the “Volume Four Bundle PDF”.)

Strauss also notes data from a 2013 Government Accountability Office study. It shows that textbook prices nearly parallel the astronomical inflation tuition and have gone up 82 percent in the last decade. An American Enterprise Institute Paper indicates that in the last 35 years textbooks have gone up a jaw-dropping 812 percent – hundreds of percentage points higher than general consumer prices, new houses, or even medical services.

Book publishers contribute to this skyrocketing rate by forcing the purchase of new editions nearly every single year — using little tricks like adding or removing a few paragraphs to force repaginating or adding minimal amounts of new material in order to claim the previous version is now outdated.

Publishers are also trying to curb piracy by selling digital versions that are somehow only “good” for a single year (thanks, licenses!) and rendered inoperative if pirated by requiring an internet connection to access content and features. These are usually only slightly cheaper than their physical counterparts, but can’t be resold at the end of the year to recoup any of the purchase price and can be completely useless to the purchaser (depending on what’s locked up by the license) after the end of the license term.

So, if students pirate books and are doing it more frequently, at least some of the blame rests on the shoulders of the publishers and their overpriced offerings. Abuse a captive market long enough and it will start routing around you.

Some of the blame lies with the instructors and the universities themselves, who require certain specific versions (and will accept no substitutes) or are more interested in pumping up sales of their own works than ensuring their students can afford to take their classes.

A year ago a student wrote on a Tumblr blog called “Children of the Stars” complaining about a professor who insisted that students buy an online version of a specific paperback sociology book for more than $200 — which the professor wrote himself — and would not allow them to purchase “an older, paperback edition of the same book for $5.” The student continued: “This is why we download.”

This subject prompted “deep news” site Vocativ to try out some textbook piracy of its own, all under the headline “Why College Students Are Stealing Their Textbooks.” (Original titles — “Why Nobody Is Paying For Expensive Textbooks Anymore” and “Why Lots Of College Students Simply Stopped Paying For Textbooks” [see the page title and url] — apparently weren’t inaccurate/provocative enough.)

Some sites, like Ebookee and TextbookRevolution, focus more on math and science textbooks. Others, like Free-ebooks and Freebookspot, have a deeper selection of humanities-related tomes. We didn’t have to look far to find what we needed. At Textbooknova, we acquired a torrent app and were off to the races. We typed in the titles for our books, one by one, and found them all immediately. Within minutes, we had four textbooks on our hard drive: Herodutus’ Histories, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Physics: The Human Adventure.

Nice “pirating.” Three out of the four books listed are in the public domain. Publication dates (in the order listed) 440 BC, 1789 (for the latest edition), 1478 and 2001.

Textooks are foisted upon students by schools and professors, meaning there will always be a market for publishers’ offerings. But publishers are burning their facilitators as well with steadily-increasing prices. Educators and administrators are also noticing that publishers are demanding the purchase of new editions every year. Some schools are hesitant to keep passing these costs along to their own paying customers. And others that can’t simply allow students to directly take the hit (elementary/high school) are starting to express their displeasure in being treated just as shoddily as thousands of college students. 800 times the rate of inflation over 35 years simply isn’t sustainable, and infringement is one of the trailing indicators of an industry that has priced itself out of the market.

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Comments on “Study Indicates College Textbook Piracy Is On The Rise, But Fails To Call Out Publishers For Skyrocketing Prices”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Even most of the shills around here seem to agree that the textbook industry is a scam and copy protection laws should be a lot more limited when it comes to educational material. Newer editions are almost identical to older ones with a few pages flipped around merely to stifle the used book market. Are there any regular shills here shameless enough to defend the publishers? Or must the publishers hire a separate set of shills? With all the shills becoming specialists lately (whatever focusing on broadband while antidirt focusing on IP) I wonder if there will be anyone willing to focus on textbooks? I guess this will be Antidirt’s department since it involves IP.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’ll give it a go:

“It’s the publishers’ property. They can do whatever they want! If you want an education, you should totally have to sign away your Schrodinger’s future earnings to paying off student loan debt accrued from the high tuition as well as the exorbitant textbooks you have to buy simply because instructors, despite supposedly being subject matter experts in their subjects, can’t produce original or OER content for their courses but instead are incentivized by publisher reps to foist the costs on their students and relieve the instructors of the time and effort it takes to actually think about the material you’re insisting students purchase, while the instructors are having pizzas delivered to their offices and free instructor manuals dropped off by the cleavage-revealing smiley publisher reps who they know on a first name basis.”

*The preceding rant is based on my actual experiences working in academia with no embellishments whatsoever. The publisher reps are on one tier of unethical jobs right below pharmaceutical reps.

**To be fair, many instructors also use publisher material because they don’t actually get paid to develop material for their courses. They often only get paid for instructional time and any prep or development time is on their own dime, unless they apply for a grant or special funding to develop course material, which departments are often loath to do.

Binko Barnes (profile) says:

If Professors and Universities actually cared about education they would empower groups of educators to create standardized, freely available digital textbooks.

But, like every other large structurally entrenched institution in America, higher education is now mostly geared toward enriching members of the existing power structure.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Out of which pot of money? Because professors have to pay rent too. If somebody said “here is a foundation that will pay you a decent price for your work, and will pay you on a regular basis to do updating – all for free, standardized college textbooks” you would have your project up and running inside of a year. But unless you donate your professional time for gratis, don’t expect others to just be unpaid labor.

Also, “universities and professors”? Dude, professors haven’t had any power in universities for at least a decade, and more like two. Administration is now pretty much pure business types and EdD sociopaths.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As a college professor I can assure you that this just makes me sick. I teach a law class using a Cengage textbook. It’s a 400-level class, the text costs $175 and it’s used in 2 semesters. They update editions about every 2 years and discontinue the older editions every 4 years. So I try to only update to every-other edition. While eventually this forces me to update the class to the newest edition, I have to admit that in a topic like law it’s pretty important to keep current. For the most part, their edition updates have been significant — both with contemporary examples and new applications/questions.

For this reason, it’s not as simple as just allowing professors to create their own texts. Plenty of platforms exist for this now. I can’t devote the time and resources to researching changes like the publishers can.

Serious ethical issues are raised by professors that mandate the sale of their own resources. That can be (and is) regulated by institutional policy. While I’m all for anything that breaks the stranglehold of the publishers, there is a research component to this that is essential/valuable to student learning.

New Mexico Mark says:

Re: Re: Re:

The first thought that comes to mind is that if a course is outdated in two years due to textbook changes, then those students’ education will be outdated in the same amount of time after they leave that class — maybe before they graduate.

That said, I realize that there are fields of study where having the latest information is valuable. However, in those fields, paper textbooks are as obsolete as the Encyclopedia Britannica. In cases where information is changing quickly, textbooks be digital and affordable.

I used the example of Encyclopedia Britannica to make the point that, as with Wikipedia, collaboration and grass-roots efforts are often the avenue to greater freedoms. You may not be able to write a textbook, but there are platforms like Moodle and many others where it would be quite possible to collaborate on a course project that would be self-sustaining. A few would need to contribute more time/effort/leadership (maybe with sponsorship from their schools) to get the initial course material prepared, but everyone including students could contribute a little on an ongoing basis to keep the material current.

Someone has to start the wheels rolling to break this cycle and kick publishers to the curb (or turn them into honest businesses). Since this bothers you, maybe you would be the best person to initiate some positive change in your field?

On a side note, whenever I think of schools and teachers still clinging to the model of using heavy, hideously expensive textbooks, I can’t help but think of a line from the Walter Matthau movie, “A New Leaf”, where his butler is encouraging him to not give up his wealthy/useless lifestyle.

“How many men these days require the services of a gentleman’s gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form, sir? You have managed, in your own lifetime Mr. Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Man, I wish pirating was as easy now as it was when I was in college

Back then, the school was able to bend us over for whatever books professors required, and then did their damndest to keep us from reselling those books to anyone other than back to the campus bookstore for credit, to use on next year’s books.

There were several professors who would teach for a year or 2 off of their own book, then go on hiatus for 2-3 years to write another edition, then come back and require the new book to be used, to try to force a new standard and sell their new book.

And then after all that, at LEAST half my classes either never used the book or taught so directly out of the book that if you showed up for class and took notes, you never opened the book.

If I had the means I do now, I would gladly pirate the fuck out of any and every book that cost more than $10 and walk around campus with nothing but an e-reader and notebook (or laptop if I’m allowed to bring one to class).

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Man, I wish pirating was as easy now as it was when I was in college

My first year, I dutifully bought every book. But after a few quarters I realized that we never used most of the books.

Then I started waiting until the professor actually assigned something from that book. The first time I would just copy the assignment from someone else. If we started using it I would go find a copy, even if I had to go to another nearby university. I saved tons of money never buying most of my books.

The ONLY books I have used since college are my Biblical Greek books.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

This is how you could always tell the professors who cares about their students from the ones who didn’t.
AKA the ones who built their own questions and posted them vs the ones who pulled from the ever changing current edition questions.
Most of my major engineering classes didn’t assign work out of the books, they opted for creating their own questions. They did this because they knew “new editions” were complete BS. There were even several teachers that held old editions of the books you could borrow for certain time frames.
But again that was only for major engineering classes where you are a “proven” serious student and they know who you are. Not the throwaway bright eyed freshman who doesn’t know any better.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Doesn’t matter. Raising prices won’t decrease piracy. It will just make piracy worse, until eventually nobody buys your book.

If they really wanted to stop piracy, they would just license the book to the school, and let the school distribute it free to the students rather than having them buy the books themselves. But that would put the schools in a bargaining position, which the publishers don’t want.

Suri says:

Re: Re:

The overpriced textbook.
The price increases and insisting on new or specific editions was happening long before the availability (or certainly widespread availability) of electronic textbooks.
If one wants to consider a broader view and the include other methods of piracy, such as photocopying, which students may have employed prior to ebooks, I believe the numbers would still be insignificant. Copying print editions of textbooks is time consuming, expensive, and generally more difficult.

sorrykb (profile) says:


Some universities (or parts of universities) are fighting back against insane textbook costs by encouraging professors to explore alternatives through Open Educational Resources or other means:

With enough pressure from students and support from faculty, this could (maybe, in time) drive the publishers to re-examine their pricing model. Or drive them out of business if they don’t.

pouar (profile) says:

Considering their high price and low quality I don’t blame them for pirating it. I do the same thing. And if it wasn’t for my college mandating their use I wouldn’t be using them at all. Also I usually just get the same info on the net for the assignments for free rather than the text book. Hell all my text books are never opened except for looking at the questions for the assignment. Why are we using these again?

Anonymous Coward says:


“Some sites, like Ebookee and TextbookRevolution, focus more on math and science textbooks.”

It appears to me that the latter (if they mean is focused on freely-available textbooks, study guides, course and other educational materials. So it’s not clear why it’s being mentioned in the same breath as these other sites.

Todd says:

Sometimes, but not always the professors fault

Although I have certainly run across people who like to sell their own textbooks, there is also the flip side. I teach at a community college, and the state requires me to list a recent textbook for my course (one still available from the publisher), regardless of whether I want my students to actually have it. I mutter under my breath to my students that they can buy any version they like but there, printed on the list is “this course requires XY textbook, current expensive edition.” Despite this, I would estimate that between 60-80% of my students pass around a PDF file of the textbook instead of buying it.

Many of the scientific/math publishers are now making their money on on-line homework which cannot be pirated and has to be purchased by every student in a course. These are more reasonably priced than the textbooks(although also increasing faster than inflation), and I think that the publishers realize this is where their future cash cow is (which is why the price is being jacked up).

Anonymous Coward says:

The last line of the article indicates text book prices have increased 800 times the rate of inflation. This might be a bit much, considering earlier in the article you indicate that textbooks increased in price by about 812% (or about 8.12 times). While 8.12 times is still egregious it is not 800 times (or, the $80. textbook from 1980 would be $64000. today)

Watchit (profile) says:

I started pirating textbooks after my freshman year after I bought a $200 textbook that was “required” for a course and then ended up never even opening it.

It gets harder every year though, as it’s harder to find higher level textbook scans since they’re used less. This year I was lucky in finding torrents for the current edition for all 4 of the textbooks I needed. But apparently one of my teachers allowed open textbook exams but we couldn’t use e-books or print outs. Thakfully I found a paperback international copy for only $30.

If I had bought my textbooks at U.S. prices it would’ve cost me roughly $550, about a quarter of what I already pay for tuition. Instead I only spent $30. You can see the appeal of piracy now, yes?

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: Re: riigghtt

First year of college I bought the text-book for my film history class. It was some service where the professor could have somebody who presumably owns the material take a bunch of disparate essays and put them together in one book.

It cost $75, and when I got it I realized that it was literally just stuff photocopied out of books and spiral-bound together.

I vowed never to buy a textbook again, and luckily I could just get what I needed from the school library.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: riigghtt

and what I can legally photocopy for a class from a textbook is 10% or a chapter – whichever is smaller.

Do you have a legal citation for that? More than 10% may violate some agreement with the publisher, but fair use is still a possibility (especially for educational purposes) and the determination of such tends to be more complicated than checking whether it’s more than 10%.

A survey that asks people whether they “illegally” downloaded something is meaningless. People can’t be expected to know that–even courts disagree–and in many areas only uploading would be illegal anyway.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: riigghtt

“More than 10% may violate some agreement with the publisher”

It’s most likely this. I used to work for a major university where many professors would provide study packets that consisted of materials photocopied from other sources. The publishers who had their work copied raised a big stink about it. The university pointed out that they were on solid legal ground doing this, but the publishers threatened to keep suing and dragging lawsuits out so that the whole thing would become so crazy expensive that it would end up being a Pyrrhic victory for the university.

The university gave in to the extortion and made a deal with the publishers that allowed the professors to make the study packets, but gave length limits for how much could be photocopied from any given source.

This restriction was not based in copyright law, but a private agreement.

John85851 (profile) says:

Yet again: make products affordable and available

Yet again we read another article about companies complaining about file-sharing yet the solution (as always) is staring them in the face: give people the content they want at a price they can afford.

Let’s look at this from the opposite angle: how many people share U2’s “The Joshua Tree” compared to how many share “Songs of Innocence”? The latter has no “value” to file-sharers since 500 million iTunes users already have it.
So how much would textbook file-sharing be cut down if the textbooks were affordable?

mcdruid (profile) says:

Not that expensivew

Twenty years ago this year, I took a class in Management at a Community College. The textbook cost $49.00 according to the price tag I see on the back.
This year I am teaching a class in Management at a Community College. The newest edition of my assigned textbook costs $48.76 on Amazon.

The Twenty-year old text is hardbound and is in a lot more in-depth than this year’s, but now we have access to the internet for more depth and breadth than we had then.
Granted, there are a bunch of textbooks out there for $160 to $200, but the publishers are making an effort to offer lower-priced options.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not that expensivew

The subject matter can have a big impact also. People with MBA’s who think they can write a management textbook are a dime a dozen. The field is subject to a lot of bravado and bullshit. There are a lot of texts that could be used for such a class.

Scientists who can write a good science textbook that involves practical examples and lab experiments of the principles covered is likely to be more rare.

Roy says:

Re: Re:

Actually… some DON’T go to college, yet download these books. I’ve been to a few classes myself, utterly useless. They only referred to about 3 pages out of the book and handed out their own materials, which wasn’t much.. This coming from Pasadena City College California.

The reason one SHOULD download a book free (information should never come at a price), is that there’s LOT of good info that a professor will never share with you.

To be honest, our firm NEVER hires anyone with a degree (on purpose). We discriminate against degree holders because we consider them indoctrinated fools. We know who we want, some of them family others friends, but we make sure they know their stuff. Heck we’ve even given them the materials and give them our own personal tests.. if they pass, we hire’em!

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