Today’s Wall Street Journal reports another infuriating example of universities betraying their key role in the dissemination of knowledge and becoming just another greedy content provider. (The converse of this, I guess…)
Apparently some universities now cut deals with publishers to sponsor “custom” versions of textbooks and then require their students to purchase those special editions. I certainly don’t see anything wrong with teachers assembling custom coursepacks of materials for their classes (sometimes it can even save students’ money if it replaces a costly textbook). But this is something else entirely — the books may not be significantly different from the standard edition and the school gets a kickback (er, I mean “royalty”) from the publisher for each book sold. The Journal opens the article with an especially offensive example (because the Journal has not yet fulfilled earlier hopes that it would make articles permanently available online, I will quote this key passage for you — it’s fair use after all!):
The University of Alabama, for instance, requires freshman composition students at its main campus to buy a $59.35 writing textbook titled “A Writer’s Reference,” by Diana Hacker.
The spiral-bound book is nearly identical to the same “A Writer’s Reference” that goes for $30 in the used-book market and costs about $54 new. The only difference in the Alabama version: a 32-page section describing the school’s writing program — which is available for free on the university’s Web site. This version also has the University of Alabama’s name printed across the top of the front cover, and a notice on the back that reads: “This book may not be bought or sold used.” …
The publisher of the Alabama book — Bedford/St. Martin’s, based in Boston — pays the Tuscaloosa school’s English department a $3 royalty on each of the 4,000 copies sold each year. And though the prohibition on selling the book used can’t be legally enforced, the college bookstore won’t buy the books back, making it more difficult for students to find used copies.
Incredible! Universities conspire to inflate students’ book bills, take a cut for themselves, and help publishers strangle the used-book market (which of course has flourished on the internet) — all without disclosing their role in it. It’s especially offensive for a writing program, of all things, to participate in something so contrary to its mission.
The Alabama program has made $20,000 this way. Believe me, I understand finances in higher education are tight. But this is not an acceptable way to earn extra cash. As the article suggests but does not fully explain, copyright law’s first sale doctrine makes the prohibition on resale entirely unenforceable. For one thing, by making the book less desirable for resale at other schools and adding that bogus legal-sounding notice, the University is aiding and abetting an extralegal attempt to expand the scope of the publisher’s IP rights. Heaven help us if this practice becomes entrenched and the century-old first sale doctrine is threatened once more.
The Alabama professor who ran the writing program that engaged in this shameful behavior told the Journal she has rejected other offers for “custom” books because “I feel bad enough getting $3.”
I’d say: not quite bad enough, Professor.