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.

Reader Comments

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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 6 Jan 2015 @ 2:27am

    Now, it's faced with a viral opponent and armed with little more than law firm letterhead.

    Viral opponent? I'm flattered.

    Signed: Ms Streisand.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2015 @ 4:35am

    If we have no legal angles we'll just ask 'em nicely and hope they're stupid enough to comply....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 6 Jan 2015 @ 5:10am

      Re:

      Hah, that was just the warning shot, the actual response is 'Drag them through the courts, making it as expensive as possible, until they give in'.

      The fact that the EFF has apparently stepped up and shown interest might be enough to keep it from reaching that point, it depends on how much control the publisher has over their lawyers, and themselves.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Avatar28 (profile), 6 Jan 2015 @ 6:36am

        Re: Re:

        >The fact that the EFF has apparently stepped up and shown interest might be enough to keep it from reaching that point, it depends on how much control the publisher has over their lawyers, and themselves.

        Well it really makes sense for the EFF to be willing to get involved if it goes to court. A victory for the publisher would almost certainly mean that extensions like Adblock would also be made illegal. In fact, pretty much any extension that alters a page could become illegal (so, most of them?).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          afn29129 (profile), 6 Jan 2015 @ 6:49am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "In fact, pretty much any extension that alters a page could become illegal (so, most of them?)..."

          And firewalls. heck even Web-browsers have setting to block pup-ups. Also don't forget HOSTS file blocking method.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2015 @ 5:15am

    >end users have the right to modify content delivered to their browsers

    This gets stated far too infrequently.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2015 @ 7:05am

    "re-branded it as #OccupyTheBookstore, as the user is literally occupying their website to find cheaper deals."

    seriously?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 6 Jan 2015 @ 9:36am

      Re:

      I was refraining from commenting on this, but since you opened that box: the misuse of the term "literally" is rapidly becoming a pet peeve of mine. It literally makes my blood boil.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2015 @ 10:01am

        Re: Re:

        Hey... it's literally occupying their website; it's surely not occupying it in any other way, only via added text.

        The literal truth is what newspapers print; it varies hugely from what actually happened. The literal meaning of a word is what is recorded in a dictionary.

        Of course, these days, the literal meaning of literal is a wee bit tortured in dictionaries....

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ltlw0lf (profile), 6 Jan 2015 @ 12:35pm

        Re: Re:

        It literally makes my blood boil.

        Make sure you are using proper Units. 98.6*C is pretty close to boiling. 98.6*F is warm, but not close to boiling.

        Wouldn't want to accidentally fly a satellite into Mars or something like that because you got your units mixed up.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2015 @ 1:30pm

        Re: Re:

        I'm sure a lot of people have seen this plugin, but it's still amusing. There are a ton of browser enhancements that allow users to modify html, but it's nice that this guy stripped it down to a trivial (but funny) joke. Now, if only there was an add-on that could bring back the proper use of the subjunctive...

        (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/literally/odlbpehkpefnmehgdofblnagjpimaanh? hl=en)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          CFWhitman, 7 Jan 2015 @ 7:28am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Now, if only there was an add-on that could bring back the proper use of the subjunctive...

          Shouldn't that be 'if only there were an add-on that could bring back the proper use of the subjunctive?'

          :)

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2015 @ 10:43am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            I honestly spent ten minutes looking at the text of my comment before hitting "Submit," wondering if that little joke was worth it. Having even one person notice it gives me fresh hope for humanity.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Just Another Anonymous Troll, 7 Jan 2015 @ 6:00am

        Re: Re:

        When angry legacy companies fight the entire forces of the Internet, they lose. That is literally the only thing that can happen. Even if this gets shut down, a clone will pop up in a week.
        Also, he said literary bound, so he gets bonus points for making a pun.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Tony (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 7:38am

        Re: Re:

        You no longer need to worry about it being misused. It has been redefined

        http://www.buzzfeed.com/jessicamisener/the-wrong-definition-of-literally-is-literally-going -in-the

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 10:01am

          Re: Re: Re:

          You no longer need to worry about it being misused. It has been redefined

          That makes it so much better.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 3:36pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yes, I'm well aware of this. That doesn't mean I won't complain about it for the rest of my days, though. Or at least until we get another word that can literally take the place of "literally".

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Gwiz (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 6:16pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            I've been literally decimated by this whole thread.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Zonker, 8 Jan 2015 @ 2:24pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              I think I'm going to have to start using the word "figuratively" when I really mean "literally" since they changed the definition of literally to mean figuratively but not the other way around. Hopefully it be misused enough that the dictionary will redefine "figuratively" to mean "literally" and we will finally have balance restored to the English language.

              But hey, at least nine tenths of Gwiz survived this thread ;)

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Ninja, 6 Jan 2015 @ 9:25am

    picking a fight with the #internets, they are literary bound to lose and hello #streisand effect

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Logic-On-i-101, 6 Jan 2015 @ 10:30am

    I can't believe how many read this article and have not thought, hmm, but why do we go to these colleges at all? IN fact why not just read electronic books? Then have ham and electronic swap meets instead of "electronics waste disposal" at the state fair.

    I would have figured the Republicans would have taken on this college issue from a economic system, justice system, legal system and monetary system stand point. I mean the colleges are involved with financial fraud, the costs are not unlike the medical industry $500 bandage and $1000 asprins, that the colleges ought to be boycotted until they get their heads out of their behind.

    or

    Especially the lefties, the green tards, the brainwashed agenda 21 carbon tax people. Your refusal to defend this app developer... IT goes to show all you truly want is for everyone to be milked as a slave until they are dead.

    Your both fascists, you both don't give a crap about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, you don't think for yourselves, and you don't have solutions for the nightmare about to unfold.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 10:03am

      Re:

      I can't believe how many read this article and have not thought, hmm, but why do we go to these colleges at all?

      For many if not most degrees, there is a very large return on investment over a lifetime. That's why.

      Especially the lefties, the green tards, the brainwashed agenda 21 carbon tax people. Your refusal to defend this app developer...

      Who is refusing to defend the app developer? I have not seen anyone sticking up for the book publisher over this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 3:40pm

      Re:

      There are two legitimate reasons to go to college: to get a degree and to get what used to be called a "well-rounded" education (which includes socialization aspects).

      Whether or not a degree is worthwhile is purely an economic question: will you make more money (factoring in the cost of education) with it than without it over your lifetime? The answer is not necessarily "yes".

      Whether or not the "well rounded" education from a university is worth the cost it is a purely personal call. For most people, it's not.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PRMan, 6 Jan 2015 @ 10:35am

    Isn't "education" a reason for fair use?

    If so, why pay for textbooks at all? After all, it will be used for educational purposes only.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2015 @ 1:10pm

    Holy Streisand Effect Batman

    >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.

    Saint Barbara visits another with the gift of page views.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 7 Jan 2015 @ 1:28pm

    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.
    This is why the tutors at my college tell us to look up the relevant section in the index. That way, it doesn't matter what edition of the textbook you're using, you'll still have access to the same information as everyone else in the class. I guess indices are the next thing that textbook publishers will get rid of.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Hank Young, 7 Jan 2015 @ 8:25pm

    Free Money

    I think that instead of lining their pockets with commission payments from online booksellers with no effort of their own, the kids from Text.com should have offered to compensate Follett and the others for the huge cost of gathering the textbook data.

    Should these Text.com guys get paid for doing nothing? Bookstores operate with a 25% margin for new books. The clothing we all buy averages 65%. 25% is less than nearly all margins for consumer goods when sold in a b&m store. Textbooks do cost way too much, but who really buys new books? I see $1,200 a year for books being quoted all the time but no student I know spends over $400 a year due to the many options open to them.

    Textbooks have risen about 800% in the last 30 years, tuition has risen 1,100% in the same timeframe. If you want to make a real impact on the cost of education you might want to concentrate on tuition. Or is that too hard?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 8 Jan 2015 @ 7:25am

      Re: Free Money

      Should these Text.com guys get paid for doing nothing?

      If they're getting paid, it's for offering a valuable service.

      Bookstores operate with a 25% margin for new books.

      The profits or lack thereof of any industry don't justify restricting competition.

      If you want to make a real impact on the cost of education you might want to concentrate on tuition.

      That argument is called a fallacy of relative privation.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_relative_privation

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous IT (profile), 18 Jan 2015 @ 6:14am

      Re: Free Money

      Most retailers deal with multiple low margin categories. Follett is a well established retailer, many years in the text book industry. The assertion that New textbook margins are 25% is irrelevant. Students aren't shopping to buy new, they want used or rental (or digital). Follett isn't in the bookstore business to sell new books.
      Texts.com isn't getting free money. They are entrepreneurs to be applauded for identifying a consumer need and responding to it. Beyond that, they are helping students save money. That makes it a noble pursuit in my mind. Better than trying to find ways to prevent fair competition....

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JessicaPrah (profile), 4 Feb 2015 @ 11:23am

    Find Better Textbook Prices with CampusBooks.com

    Student’s should be provided with direct access to reasonably priced textbooks. CampusBooks.com recently released a new “Buy vs. Rent” tool that helps students to determine whether they should buy or rent their textbooks based on current price and future estimated buyback values.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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