Cal State U. -Long Beach senior Julie Boll is $19,000 in debt. She had to sell her car and some of her wardrobe to pay her daily expenses.
When the semester began, she realized textbooks were going to cost more than she expected — nearly $700 for the semester.
With no money to spare, she turned to a solution that is becoming more popular with students: textbook piracy.
“I have paid literally thousands of dollars to [textbook distributors],” Boll said. “I can’t afford to line their pockets this semester, and I don’t think they should really blame me.”
In the past, file-sharing websites have been used to distribute movies, music, and videogames.
But a new trend, thanks in part to the popularity of e-book readers like the iPad and Kindle, is sharing textbooks.
There are many websites where students can search for the textbooks they need, download them for free in mere minutes, then read them on their computers or e-book reader.
“Even if I did have the money, I would probably still pirate,” CSULB student Mark Slauson said. “I used to have to carry around piles of books, now I use the iPad I carry anyway.”
A variety of sources produce the digital copies of textbooks on piracy websites.
Some of them are the official digital versions of textbooks that have had their digital rights management hacked out, allowing unlimited copies.
Others are provided by a relatively small but dedicated group of students who use portable scanners hidden in their backpacks to scan entire library copies of books in less than an hour.
Another source of digital copies are students who agree to swap and scan textbooks.
However, major textbook publishers like Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been fighting back this threat with legal force.
A recent court ruling against the popular file-sharing site RapidShare resulted in the site being liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for every textbook that remained on their site, and publishers have even gone as far as threatening students with legal action if they would not pay a settlement.
Textbook piracy is not just supported by students, though. Some professors have encouraged students to bypass the cost of textbooks.
“I do not go so far as to provide them with copies, but at the start of every semester, I make it very clear to my students that there are free copies of their $200 textbook on the internet,” said a CSULB professor, who asked to stay anonymous.
“This particular textbook has seen price increases year after year with no improvements in content. I was a student once, and of all the people to profiteer off, they are the hardest to justify, ethically speaking,” the professor continued.
In 2008, the Association of American Publishers sued Georgia State U., claiming they had “systematically enabled professors to provide students with digital copies of copyrighted course reading materials without the publisher’s permission.”
If professors at CSULB were to reveal their position on textbook piracy publicly without the plausible deniability they have in the classroom, CSULB could face similar consequences.