Monday, November 29, 2010

Copyright? More like Copy=wrong

Imagine this for a moment: that you are a baby, just a little tiny baby (Seasoned Readers can smell the emotional pandering coming from a mile away) and the federal government agency of copyright protection comes into your hospital room and says that you owe them a few hundred because you are probably, at some point in your life, going to violate some copyright laws by downloading something so you might as well pay them now. What would you say?
See this is a trick question because you are a baby so you are unlikely to do anything other than burble and soil yourself which is (full circle!) what most university students are going to do when the University of Alberta comes over to them to say that they have to fork over $45 a year because they might download a textbook at some point and the copyright hounds have decided we weren't paying them enough (current fee is around $4 and is allegedly paid by the university [the likelihood that they are flat-out paying it and not getting the money back by charging students for a "book fee" somewhere is so close to zero that they both get sick if one sneezes]).

For anyone who is not a student, the circle of textbooks looks like this: Pay an exorbitant fee to have the book, sell it back to the store for a grossly reduced amount (I have personally had over $200 worth of texts sell back for $7. I hate you too, English.) the store then turns around and sells that text for a disgustingly inflated figure to the next moron in line, and so the cycle continues, until the course spontaneously decides to stop using a text, thus leading to a "hot potato" sort of issue where you either find someone who is trying to save money by using the old edition of the text or try to convince yourself that you really wanted it as a reference thus filling your shelves with brightly colored heavy-ass books that look like they were puked on by an artistic geometric figure and are about as useful as geometric figure puke.

Sometimes, like in my sociology class, the prof will compile a bunch of journals and text excerpts, photo-copy them and distribute this bundle of fun to the students. There are two ways they can do this: one, informally, where the students literally just get a bunch of handouts, or two,  by having the copy-shop professionally produce a "course-pack" which is sold to students for roughly the same amount as a cheap text, but saves (theoretically) on the fees that the manufacturer pays the publisher and the writer. It's really this second option that the copyright puppies are heading after, insisting that the university is not paying enough for use of the materials within the book.

The textbook industry is sort of like Microsoft, except there isn't any organized Linux for cheap people to run to. They're offensively expensive and it's sort of confusing why. It cannot possible be that expensive to create them; for crying out loud the average cost of producing a hardcover seems to run around $2 (and that's from a self-publishing site. It seems pretty tough to get average costs of book production). Some students opt out of the circle of ridiculousness by finding the books in libraries and copying pertinent passages or, in the case of really dedicated students, the entire text, but employees tend to notice when you have to bring a packed lunch to the copy room, and tend to get quite annoyed... so here's the big change for now:

Effective Jan. 1, 2011, the required textbooks for a course can no longer be placed on reserve in the library or other resource room. Other required printed materials, such as journal articles, essays or chapters, may be placed on reserve but students may not copy them. These changes are a result of the fair dealing court decision and the fact that the university’s protection through Access Copyright will expire with the agreement. 

It's too early to tell how this will effect student's lives but given that I myself possess at least one journal article that I had to photocopy from a text in the library (paid over $1 a day for late fees before I noticed I could only have it for a week) it is not a stretch to say it's going to make life annoying for students who are strapped for cash. 

Worse, the copyright people are bringing up this kind of radical change now, a month before the current contract expires, so the University professors are scrambling to get copy-package orders in now before the price hikes. I'm not going to say it looks like the gas pumps during the oil crisis,but I did see a prof take a penknife with him to the copy store and I saw another one wearing a "Team Plato" shirt...

This whole issue is in direct opposition to things I have advocated earlier (the right to protect intellectual property) and I myself will likely argue the opposite point in later posts once I become a world-famous literati, beloved by millions, and sticking it to the un-learned masses in the form of exorbitant royalties, but it is almost starting to look like we are going to require some government regulation to keep textbook manufacturers from gouging us all.

Anyway, good luck finding out anything about this in the usual Edmonton newspapers. I heard about it on the radio and have been searching for the last hour online in the sad attempt to find anything about it. If I was doing a post on Fefe Dobson or how The Bieber doesn't want to date a female fan, I'd be all set, but about this issue that could actually effect people's lives? Hah. The only place it can be found is here on the University of Alberta's website.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

My dear Dad wrote the textbook for the course he taught. When he found out the cost it was going to seel for at the good ol' UofA bookstore he just about lost his mind, and the was almost 20 years ago!. So, in typical form he used his position of copyright holder to produce a new edition. At a copyshop, at cost. Amazing how the bookstore sold only a few copies from students who actually *wanted* a reference copy.

Anonymous said...

The actual cost of production is only part of the issue; the rest is having to make enough money to cover the cost of producing stuff that doesn't sell. You either make enough on the stuff that does sell to cover the stuff that doesn't or you go under.

The answer, unfortunately, might be everything on-line. No inventory means no excuse for hiking prices. Also, I heard once of a very inexpensive method of producing books to order, ie: I'd like to buy some obscure tome so they print one for me. It would be interesting to see if that ever gets anywhere.

Lol, mapa

Michelle Ernst said...

@Anonymous
I love profs that do that, especially given how pretentious it can seem to use your own text as a course text. I have also on occasion voluntarily eschewed money to keep a text.

@mapa
I love that notion, printing on demand, absolutely. I don't think textbook producers have any call for books they don't sell tho, given that almost every student taking a class will buy a book, it's really a inelastic source of demand, with a concrete upper limit number.

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