Internet Pirates Plunder Educational Material

Broke and Frustrated, Students Increasingly Turn to Textbook Torrents


Published: August 28, 2008

The death of the old model of the music industry was quick and inevitable. Once Napster, the all-encompassing predator, took to the scene, record stores were doomed. With the proliferation of similar user-friendly file sharing sites, the industry is almost at the point where CD’s can be considered ancient artifacts. But now that the music industry has been conquered, who’s next? Textbook publishers, the breadwinners of the book industry, should be shaking in their shoes.

The high seas of the Internet are becoming a dangerous place for textbook publishers. (Craig Calefate/The Observer)

Broke college students, the same population that ravaged record sales and left pop stars clamoring for endorsements, have decided to find an alternate method of obtaining textbooks. Unfortunately for publishers, the force preying upon their pricy stock is a hybrid of that which killed off the CD—textbook torrents.

Many forms of media are suffering at the hands of the Internet, but according to a recent article in The New York Times, “college textbook publishing has a particularly nasty problem on its hands.” The demand for used books is soaring, and although publishers have begun transitioning some of their material into the e-book format, students are not any more satisfied with the price they’re paying for textbooks. Popular file-sharing sites like Demonoid, Textbook Torrents and The Pirate Bay are increasingly serving as resources for educational material. Angry and technologically proficient, college students have begun scanning textbooks into digital files and enouraging peers to download their contents for free with no remorse.

Peter Sunde, spokesman and co-founder of The Pirate Bay confirms that although the site does not “monitor textbooks exactly,” they have noticed an increase in e-books.

The idea of pirating textbooks is still fairly new to FCLC students, but many seem open to the idea of skipping a trip to the school bookstore this upcoming semester.

“I would not feel bad about illegally downloading a textbook,” said Nicole Marie Acevedo, FCLC ’09, “Very simply, because they are too expensive (oppressively so in some cases), and I feel like that is to be expected with costs this high (plus the amount of books we are sometimes required to purchase per class).”

Shannon C., FCLC ’10, feels equally resentful toward textbook publishing companies. “No way. I would not feel guilty at all [about illegally downloading a textbook],” said Shannon. “The textbook companies survive solely to rip off students—any way I could take a stab at them, I would.”

Not surprisingly, students who say they would abstain from downloading textbooks if given the opportunity claim they would do so for reasons other than being plagued by guilt.

“I’m kind of OCD about having books, and it wouldn’t feel the same,” said Robert Abud, FCLC ’10, “So it’s not a moral thing, it’s a compulsive disorder thing.”

Brian O’Connell, FCLC ’11, is concerned about the welfare of student workers who may depend on their jobs at the school bookstore. “I’ve worked in the bookstore before, and from doing so I know it’s the publishers who set the prices so high,” said O’Connell. “I wouldn’t feel guilty if they didn’t get the profit of a book or two, but it actually can hurt the employees, not only at bookstores, but at different places, if they don’t make the sale.”

Since moral implications do not fit largely into the equation, the publisher’s only saving grace may be that the majority of students still prefer to have a hard copy of their textbooks.

“[I prefer] hard copy,” said Shannon, “For note-taking in the margins, underlining, etc. Also, reading online after a while hurts my eyes.”

The physical act of highlighting and note-taking is a practice that aides the learning experience of many FCLC students.

“I prefer hard copy books because I tend to interact with the text as I read, and I need to have physical notes to help me study,” said Acevado, “With e-books, you can’t really do that unless you employ the electronic highlighting, which isn’t the same.”

Although the physical presence of their product gives them some advantage, textbook publishers are still caught in a losing battle. With students on their side and loopholes that make legal conviction difficult, torrent sites will only continue to flourish. Many sites like The Pirate Bay operate under the insistence that they do not host any content, but rather act as a search engine for locating torrents.

“We’re a legit system, and it’s gonna be hard to take us to court,” said Sunde, “They’re welcome to try.”

In order to survive in this rapidly evolving world of technology, Sunde suggests that textbook publishers adapt their business model.

“Being afraid of the Internet and not acknowledging the existence of it in its current format is bad for both business and knowledge,” he said, “I think we should all help, teaching each other, and we should listen to studies that show how you can make money on other things than hard copy sales.”

If textbook publishers hope to retain their status as major corporations, they may want to take heed to Sunde’s advice. PC Magazine reports that sales of the Kindle, the electronic book reader produced by Amazon, have been a lot higher than expected. A portable device with the ability to store pirated material sounds very reminiscent of the iPod, and if hostile college students have anything to do with it, hard copy books will be sitting on the curb, alongside the extensive CD collections they cherished in the ’90s.