Any college or graduate student knows that a new semester of classes means a new semester of paying sky-high prices for textbooks. Since costly books are not very conducive to an “in-school” budget, students instead often buy used books from upperclassmen or make photocopies if the professor places a textbook on reserve in the library.

However, an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras, is trying to put a stop to these practices with a new patent aimed at combatting publishers’ revenue depletion from piracy. Joseph Henry Vogel recently obtained U.S. Patent No. 8195571 for a “web-based system” that ultimately links a student’s grade with their textbook purchase. Here is how it works: the publisher would license its book to a professor, and in order to receive the license, the professor would have to conduct an online discussion board as part of the class. A portion of the student’s grade would then involve participating in this online discussion board.  To access the board, however, the student would need a code listed in a new textbook associated with the course. Used books would still be available from the bookstore, but students would also have to buy a discounted code to access the online discussion. A student’s failure to participate in the online board would be reflected in their grade.

Obviously the patent is not self-fulfilling – it would first require a professor to choose to implement this system. Vogel asserts that protecting textbook revenue will allow professors to continue publishing their research. However, many critics are questioning whether this method is truly affordable, or, even more unsettling, whether this means that a student is essentially paying for their grade. In his press release, Vogel attempted to address these concerns by first suggesting that the fee should be waived for students from “low and moderate-income families.” Second, Vogel classified his system as one of “bounded openness,” and argued that such a system would actually promote equity: if access to the discussion board becomes the true object of payment (as opposed to the textbook), then publishers will have an incentive to upload the accompanying textbook for free, under the fair use doctrine.

While Vogel has taken an ambitious stance with this patent, many questions remain. Would professors ever choose to implement this? If, as Vogel asserts, access to the discussion board becomes the actual product, will the price of the code change to reflect the former price of the associated textbook? Vogel’s patent may work in theory, but in application there appears to be many hurdles that need to be overcome before such a system could be instituted.

Katharine Skinner

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One Response to Fair Use or Unfair Profits for Textbook Publishers?

  1. Shane Valenzi says:

    Wow,great article Kat!

    Unfortunately, Vogel’s arguments ring false on a lot of levels. How would a textbook company determine who is from a “low or moderate income” family? Students who are busy preparing for class hardly have the time or desire to disclose their full familiar income situation to every bookstore that carries textbooks, nor should they be required to. This plan also doesn’t address graduate students, who are by and large financially independent from their parents. Second, whatever ethereal goodwill incentives textbook publishers might have to lower the prices for the books themselves, those motivations would pale in comparison to the continued motivation to maximize profits. Textbooks are already grossly overpriced, by virtue of the fact that publishers know they can upcharge as much as they want, because their consumer base purchases their product because they HAVE to, not because they’re being judicious shoppers. I don’t see how this system would change that.

    Finally, the idea that professors would benefit from increased prices is flawed. First, whether they benefit would depend on their agreements with the publisher – if they don’t earn a percentage of each sale, an increased price is irrelevant to their fortunes. More fundamentally, though, this plan takes two distinct groups – students and teachers – and elects to force MORE money from the pockets of the students (money they don’t have in the first place, and likely comes from loans at higher-than-ever rates) and puts it (ostensibly) in the pockets of the teachers, with the publisher as a middle man that takes a major percentage of the profits. Professors (and the print publishing industry, if we’re being honest) are not swimming in cash by any means. But they are certainly better off than the vast majority of those enrolled in colleges and graduate schools, who will begin their adult life with six figures of debt. If professors want to make more money from their work, they should enter into an agreement with a publisher to charge less money, which will incentivize students to purchase an original copy rather than a discounted used copy of inferior quality.

    Of course, there’s always the possibility of extending resale rights to authors, but that’s another conversation for another day!