Alex Beam on Textbook “Piracy”

A textbook case of piracy (pdf)

I was heartened to learn that college kids are wielding the same Internet piracy tools they used to bring down the recording industry to download textbooks. Although the textbook oligopolists are fighting back mightily – the Association of American Publishers uses Covington & Burling, a take-no-prisoners law firm in Washington, D.C., to hunt down malefactors – there are at least two sites still around offering books: Textbook Torrents tends to be shut down, and moves around the Web, but the last time I checked, was offering such books as – well, youll see.

As a writer, how can I support this? I should be an absolutist on copyright protection for all books, magazines, and newspapers. But Im not. The publishers have disgraced themselves, and they are paying the price. Three-hundred-dollar textbooks in the hard sciences are not unusual, and the companies are selling to a captive audience. Hundred-dollar add-ons, masquerading as digital workbooks, or problem-solving sets, are not uncommon.

Publishers love to put out bogus “new” editions to drive a stake though the heart of the used textbook market, which was gaining its second wind at online auction sites. […]

I don’t really recall what Mr. Beam’s early take on Napster was (or if he had one at all), but it’s interesting to note the common elements of these apologies for “piracy”: an industry that exploits its control over distribution to extract profits; the rise of a technology that upsets that chokehold on distribution; a (perceived) lack of innovation in content and/or delivery; and an expectation that, in the end, the content will still be available among the wreckage of the old business model — capitalism’s creative destruction at its finest, coupled with a certain joy from participating in the wreckage.

Which is not to say that it’s a bad thing; it is, after all, what got us to where we are today. But, while it’s certain that textbooks will survive this, and the profits of the textbook companies will not, there is the question of whether this is a model that applies everywhere. In particular, what about the news media, and the print media in general? Google’s announced plan (Google to Digitize Newspaper Archives) looks like it should be a plus for this struggling industry, but the fact that it continues to drain the advertising revenue upon which these firms are founded means that it remains problematic whether there’s going to be a continuing source of material to be archived in the future.

At what point do the “new media” come to recognize that their business models will necessarily depend upon shoring up the old media? And will they come up with a successful approach in time — i.e., before the two sides are so intransigently positioned that they all elect to go down in flames instead?

Later, this related article: Times Will Shut Down Its Distribution Subsidiary and this: Google Strikes Partnership With NBC to Expand in TV Advertising