Skyrocketing cost of textbooks spurs campus copyright battle

The high cost of college textbooks has spawned a new battleground in the fight to keep students from downloading copyright-protected materials over the internet: textbook file sharing.

Several web sites allow–and, in some cases, encourage–students to make available scanned copies of textbook pages for others to download free of charge, often using the same peer-to-peer file-sharing technology that is used to swap music and movies online.

"In the age of Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing for music, young people are used to taking copyrighted material," said J.D. Harriman, a partner in the intellectual property practice for the Los Angeles-based law firm DLA Piper. "This is not the education we want to give these students from the very beginning–to be copyright infringers."

Driving this latest trend are soaring textbook prices, which have risen at twice the annual rate of inflation over the last 20 years, a study done by the Government Accountability Office has found.

According to the College Board, the average college student spent between $805 and $1,229 on books and supplies alone during the 2007-08 school year. In the National Association of College Stores’ 2008 Student Watch Survey of Student Attitudes & Buying Habits, students surveyed estimated they spent $702 on required course materials annually. Required Course Materials include: printed texts (both new and used), electronic textbooks, and course packs and customized materials.

And though pressure from educational publishers prompted the host of a major textbook-sharing web site to pull the plug on its service earlier this month, legal experts say that’s just the beginning of what could become a protracted campaign by the publishing industry to end the sharing of copyrighted texts online–much as the recording industry has tried to do with music file-sharing on college campuses.

So far, publishers have limited their efforts to targeting offending web sites, similar to how the recording industry tried to shut down Napster and other music-sharing web sites earlier this decade.

But if the campaign to curb textbook file-sharing follows the same arc as that of the music industry’s efforts, it’s possible this movement could shift its focus onto the students themselves who download or make available copyrighted texts online–especially as publishers realize how hard it is to keep up with an ever-changing lineup of textbook-sharing web sites.

After more than a year of enabling students to scan, share, and download textbook content online, free of charge, Textbook Torrent–the largest and most high-profile of these textbook-sharing web sites–was no longer online as of press time.

Textbook Torrent reportedly offered more than 5,000 textbooks for downloading in PDF format, complete with their original layout and full-color illustrations. Users of the site could download and share these documents in the same fashion that music and movies have been shared in the past–through the peer-to-peer file-sharing system BitTorrent.

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