Developers Of Chrome Extension That Finds Cheaper Textbook Prices Receive Legal Threats From Major Textbook Supplier
from the cease-and-desist-of-self-affliction-+1 dept
The textbook publishing industry has turned books of facts into overvalued goods on par with “priceless” finds at antique stores. To keep margins high and the revenue stream flowing, publishers screw with pagination in order to create “new” editions every year, turning textbooks into useless piles of paper the moment they’re purchased. Trading one in at the end of the class means receiving pennies on the dollar for your original investment. Stocking up for another semester’s worth of classes means shelling out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Rinse. Repeat.
So, when someone comes along and threatens this business model, publishers are swift to react. Offensive efforts — like locking schools into yearly purchases for instructors’ versions and acting as “partners” in campus bookstores — have mitigated most of the damage caused by outside forces like Amazon and used book retailers.
But the publishers also play defense. A side project from Texts.com (a service that helps students scour the web for the best prices on textbooks) has caught the attention of Follett, one of the nation’s largest suppliers of campus bookstores.
OccupyTheBookstore is a Chrome extension that allows users to find better prices on textbooks while browsing bookstore websites. Follett doesn’t like this because the extension draws sales away from the stores it supplies. It sent a cease-and-desist request to the team behind the extension, asking (nicely, at this point) to knock it off or it will be “forced” to involve its legal team.
In an AMA at Reddit, the team announced it has no interest in complying with Follett’s request.
We’ve been asked to remove the extension by Follett, a $2.7 billion company that services over 1700+ college bookstores. Instead of complying, we rebuilt the extension from the ground up and re-branded it as #OccupyTheBookstore, as the user is literally occupying their website to find cheaper deals.
Because of the way the extension is constructed and operates, it would appear Follett has no legal basis for its takedown demand.
Follett had a few angles, none of which have much merit:
They could try the Copyright angle, arguing that our plugin constitutes copyright infringement by creating an unauthorized adaptation of their page. That said, we’re opt-in, so while we are modifying the web page, we’re only doing so with the end-users permission. Additionally, we’re not manipulating information or blocking the ability to use any/all aspects of the site if the end user so desires.
They could also try the Terms of Service angle, saying that we’re knowingly equipping their users to breach the TOS by using scrapers, data-extractors, etc. That said, we never directly interact with any bookstore website, we merely supplement information provided by the end-users local browser. As such, we think that they could theoretically go after the individual student, but they probably would never bother.
In searching for precedent, we looked at AdBlock heavily, and also at price-comparison plugins like Honey.
This thought process was confirmed by Honey’s developer, who pointed out that end users have the right to modify content delivered to their browsers. What the extension does is bring Text.com’s search power to the bookstores’ websites via an overlaid menu. It makes no use of the original website other than to gather the book information needed to provide relevant results — something any user could do with a few extra steps. The original website is unaltered. Only the new menu — opted into by the end user — provides anything different from the normal user experience.
Follett’s legal team has likely already determined the company can’t do much about this extension, hence the polite request to stop. The next move — if there is one — will probably be vague pressure and subtle hints about expensive future court battles, even if the extension’s developers would likely prevail. The good news is that the team has heard from the EFF, which has extensive experience in fighting this sort of quasi-legal chicanery.
The other good news is the inadvertent effect of Follett’s shutdown attempt: the extension is far more popular now than it was before the company tried to head off this threat to its business model.
In an interview, [Texts.com founder Peter] Frank said that before today the tool had only been downloaded 200 times since it was first made available in April. By Friday evening, it had been downloaded 15,000 times.
All Follett had to do was leave it alone. Now, it’s faced with a viral opponent and armed with little more than law firm letterhead.