Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Foiling Textbook Pirates with Discussion Boards

A professor of economics at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras believes he has come up with a solution for textbook piracy, high prices for textbooks, and distribution of royalties for new and used textbooks, all in one.

Joseph Henry Vogel was granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for his web-based system for course materials. Here’s how it works, in short: An instructor adopts a textbook and licenses it through the system. Students taking the instructor’s course buy the book and use a unique code in each copy to access a class discussion board. The system tracks the logins as proof of purchase and distributes the royalties. Students who don’t buy the book (or who buy a pirated copy) can’t access the discussion board and hence can’t pass the course.

The patent application reasons that students will want to pass and therefore will comply with purchasing a new copy, forgoing any temptation to pirate the text. The application also presumes publishers will be able to reduce textbook prices because they can count on more sales and can spread the development costs over more copies. A key component is that students must be required to participate on the discussion board as a course criterion, or the whole system falls apart.

Vogel’s patent immediately came under criticism from blog sites such as TechDirt for propping up course materials costs, not alleviating them. But some commenters supported the system, noting that academic publishing, especially in the hard sciences, may collapse without sufficient revenues.

The system does accommodate used copies, although students might not actually save much money going that route. If permitted by the license, students who acquire a used textbook would submit documentation showing where they bought it and would pay a fee to the publisher (the patent suggests 30% of the retail price) to access the discussion board.

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