Allegations of extensive copy-right piracy on university campuses recently triggered a large-scale search by prosecutors and investigators of photocopy shops near universities in central Tai-wan. Six major British and US publishers are reported to have plans to issue a warning notice to most of the nation's universities and colleges.
All this has prompted widespread debate. Some have taken the opportunity to seek to educate the public about the demarcation line between "fair use" of others' copyrighted works and infringement of protected works. But such debate does nothing substantive to resolve the problems facing Taiwan's students.
One of the problems is the price of books. As the director of a university library, I feel very strongly about this. If one copy of a foreign-language book costs US$60 (about NT$2,000), NT$10 million will only buy 5,000 books. A library housing 1 million Western-language books will have invested around NT$2 billion and a library of 5 million such books, NT$10 billion. The attainment of knowledge, it seems, can only be accomplished at a high price.
As long as Taiwan remains marginalized and dependent on Western countries, the big bucks we have to pay for foreign-language books will only increase, not decrease. As the schools pursue internationalization, the demand for foreign-language textbooks will only rise, as will the cost of book purchases -- commensurately.
Few people photocopy books from China and Taiwan except when they are out-of-print editions, because books from China are cheap and Taiwan's book prices are in keeping with our standard of living. Foreign publishers should ask themselves whether it is reasonable to sell books to students in developing nations at prices set according to their own living standards.
The piracy situation will never be eliminated if this problem is not resolved. If foreign publishers take into account the living standards of developing countries and adopt more reasonable price-setting policies, then I believe the piracy problem will abate.
Universities can emulate a foreign trend by having campus bookstores purchase used textbooks at the end of each semester and reselling them at half-price or even lower. When I was studying at the University of Wisconsin, this method saved me a lot of money each semester. Although this method wouldn't completely satisfy demand for books, it should be of great help.
The high costs for large foreign databases have prompted university libraries to organize coalitions in order to seek better prices through collective bargaining. We should be able to adopt such models to tackle the foreign textbook problem. Government agencies can work together with universities to negotiate with foreign publishers and seek reasonable book prices for poor students.
Lai Ting-ming is director of the Shih Hsin University library.
Translated by Jackie Lin