The truth about textbook piracy

Although textbook piracy is illegal, students may find that it is their cheapest and only option.

Luis Ruuska

Journalist James Surowiecki  epitomized the textbook industry’s business in the New Yorker years ago as a fight against used book sales via new, expensive editions of books released every few years. For Surowiecki, these obsolete texts are planned to manipulate the industry to profit from students.

The cost of textbooks has skyrocketed a whopping 812 percent since 1978. In comparison, the Consumer Price Index has only risen 250 percent since 1978. Additionally, it is estimated that students pay anywhere from $800 to $1,000 annually for textbooks at four-year public universities.

With no end in sight for the high cost of textbooks, students are increasingly turning to more unscrupulous methods to acquire their course materials.

While students are continuing to pirate their favorite TV shows, movies and albums, the odd PDF of their Monday class’s textbook may not look so out of place in their BitTorrent client these days.

In 2010, around 20 percent of students surveyed by the Book Industry Study Group reported illegally downloading course content. Today that number has risen to 34 percent. Over the same period of time, the amount of students who admitted to photocopying or scanning textbooks rose from 21 percent to 31 percent.

It is clear that more than a third of students see pirating textbooks as a viable option for making the grade, but are they in the wrong?

Legally, yes. It’s irrefutable that downloading copyrighted textbooks for free is illegal. How could it not be?

But to simply state this obvious fact and declare that this issue is a black-and-white one where the lazy and self-centered college students are in the wrong and the hardworking, law-abiding textbook publishing industry is in the right is to miss the point entirely.

While pirating textbooks may be illegal, students have every ethical right to do it provided that they accept there may be legal consequences for their actions. Why? Because, as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango and the textbook publishing industry has kept prices exorbitantly high for more than three decades.

Too long have the requests and complaints of students to the textbook publishing industry fallen upon deaf ears. At some point we as students need to draw a line in the sand and decide whether to refuse to support an industry whose profits rise as our modest finances diminish. If the textbook publishing industry does not want to compromise, then it shouldn’t be surprised to see its profits begin to dwindle year-by-year.

For some students, drawing that line will mean only renting or buying used books. For others, this will mean pirating to make the grade.

The exponential rise in piracy over the last decade is the reason many industries have released streaming services like Hulu and Spotify in a gesture of compromise to their customers. The book industry has also recognized the value in digital content, and retailers like and Barnes & Noble have eagerly adopted their respective e-book devices, e-books and e-book loaning services and inadvertently opened the door to piracy even further.

Only a tiny fraction of “pirates” face consequences each year. Students are going to be surprised to discover that pirating their textbooks is as easy and as relatively safe as pirating their favorite albums. But they will also need to decide for themselves if the ends justify the means. In this case, the ends might mean hundreds of dollars saved each semester and a little less debt after