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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Filed Under: copyright, educations, piracy, prices, textbooks


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  1. icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 23 Sep 2014 @ 10:15am

    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.

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