What Kind Of Professor Patents A Way To Make It More Expensive & More Difficult For Students To Learn?

from the insanity dept

Torrentfreak has the story of an economics professor (of all things) who has apparently received a patent on a way to try to force students to buy expensive textbooks. The professor, Joseph Henry Vogel, is positioning this patent (8,195,571) as an "anti-piracy" technique, though it appears that it works equally well in preventing students from sharing a single textbook or merely checking the textbook out of the library. The details of the patent are hardly new or innovative either. The basics are that the class has both a textbook and an online discussion board -- and buying the textbook provides you a code that allows you to enter the discussion board. In theory, you could also just buy the code.

There'a all sorts of idiocy involved in this situation. Let's just separate out a few examples:
  1. How the hell does something like this get patented in the first place? There is a tremendous amount of prior art in the form of things like "one-time" use codes for video games and other digital offerings to limit the used sales market. And yet this still gets approved? USPTO examiner James D. Nigh should be ashamed for letting this piece of garbage get approved.
  2. The claims here (the patent only has four) are so broad and so general, I don't see how it passes the non-obvious test, nor how it is anything more than mashing together a few different things that are widely available already and have been for years. After the KSR ruling the USPTO was supposed to reject broad patents that just combined basic concepts already found in the market.
  3. How could a professor of economics actually think that locking up access to information is a good idea? That alone would make me avoid any class that he taught, as his understanding of information economics is way, way off.
  4. It's sad that anyone in academia would think that this is a good idea. In an age where Harvard and MIT are investing a ton into opening up access, this guy is focused on locking it down.
The whole thing is extraordinary for how bad of an idea it is -- and the fact that a patent was actually issued on this only compounds the ridiculousness.

Filed Under: economics, education, harvard, james d. nigh, mit, textbooks, uspto


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  1. icon
    Jeremy2020 (profile), 12 Jun 2012 @ 3:46pm

    I e-mailed him a note that professors should encourage students to share information and this is his response:

    "Please find a common response to the voluminous emails I received regarding my
    patent. Most of the students were “outraged”, “disgusted”, and used
    abusive and even threatening language. I believe education is formation of
    character and so I shall respond. Many misperceptions exist about the role of
    patents in textbook publishing and also about me and my own work. My hope is
    that one can engage in civil debate with an open mind to change one’s
    opinion when presented with logic and evidence. Please contemplate:

    Research-active universities do not reward professors for publishing textbooks
    yet many top professors have written textbooks. One can only assume the
    motivation WAS monetary. My example of Paul A. Samuelson and the 19 editions
    of ECONOMICS is indeed classic. With rampant piracy, the best and brightest
    will no longer publish textbooks and the students will suffer from inferior
    quality textbooks.

    Open access is indeed a good idea for scholarly cutting-edge work as
    professors want their work read. But as per (1), scholarly cutting-edge work
    does not include textbooks.

    De facto open access of textbooks will extinguish the Publishing industry from
    producing top-rate textbooks and an analog can be found with open access of
    genetic resources of which I can profess some expertise. I have written
    extensively about “biopiracy” and “biofraud” by the US pharmaceutical
    companies and how habitat conservation is undermined in the biodiverse tropics
    (and US National Parks). Let’s also be clear that I earn nothing from these
    publications and copy and paste some recent scholarly publications here. I
    have also maxed out from any sort of career advancement at my institution. I
    invented the patented system largely for the same reason that I research and
    publish: the challenge and joy of puzzle-solving.

    The patent requires that students participate in Discussion Boards. I think
    this is a good idea especially today when most students do not know the
    majority of students in their class. Since the time of the Socrates,
    discussion has been the enabler of learning. The requirement to adopt the
    Discussion Board fosters such learning. Note well: no Publisher is forcing any
    professor’s hand to adopt their book under the patented system. However, a
    professor cannot adopt the Publishers’s book, let it be pirated, and then
    not subscribe to the Publisher’s Discussion Board that guarantees a payment
    for use of the Publisher’s textbook. The billion-dollar firm Houghton
    Mifflin Harcourt has recently filed Chapter 11 of bankruptcy. Others will
    follow suit.

    Students of low income should apply for the US Federal Pell Grant which is
    means-tested. As owner of the patent, I want Publishers to waive the fee for
    students who present evidence of the Pell Grant. As such, the patent greatly
    benefits students of low income. Today, some low income students are put in
    moral dilemma to pirate or not attend university. My patent directly helps
    them.

    As Publishers capture fees from pirated downloads and the used book market,
    the price of textbooks will fall for students who are not on the Pell Grant.

    Ironically, the patent encourages free access to textbooks for self-taught
    students (no need to access a Discussion Board). Publishers will have no
    reason to encrypt textbooks and, I suspect, many will even put them on line.
    So, the textbooks in their latest edition become valuable resources for the
    self-taught students and graduates.

    Finally, what will happen to the royalties of the patent? Academic freedom is
    under assault everywhere. Half the royalty income from the patent will
    finance initiatives to promote academic freedom and is written into the
    language of the patent in various Claims.

    You need not agree. So please join blogs and elaborate reasoned responses to
    my arguments. I hope I may have persuaded some of you that your initial
    impression was indeed mistaken. If nothing else, I hope I have persuaded all
    of you that abusive and threatening language undermines public support for
    higher education. Arguments must be reasoned, politely.
    Cheers, Joseph"

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