Sun, Jul 19, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Breaking reliance on expensive textbooks

By Mao Ching-chen 毛慶禎

Professors should opt for legally downloadable textbooks where possible, as they help students on a tight budget and offer greater flexibility.

The Taipei-based Chinese Oral and Literary Copyright Intermediary Association (中華語文著作權仲介協會) has reportedly signed a contract with the Tainan Reprographics Guild (台南市影印商業同業公會) to allow foreign-language books to be photocopied as long as an authorization fee is paid and the number of pages copied does not exceed 20 percent of the book.

Every summer, the Taiwan Book Publishers Association (台灣國際圖書業交流協會), composed of 30 publishers, issues an official letter to presidents of domestic colleges and universities and sends copies to the Ministry of Education and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) calling for the use of copyrighted textbooks. In turn, the office issues a letter requesting that the Ministry of Economic Affairs demand colleges and universities instruct students to use copyrighted books.

Preposterously, college and university presidents forward this letter from a commercial pressure group to every teacher and the IPO threatens students to make them comply.

Students have no choice but to give in to the pressure.

On April 11, 2001, prosecutors and police raided a dormitory at National Cheng Kung University, seizing 14 computers and accusing students of illegally downloading and trading MP3 music files. A few days later, the education ministry mediated and students expressed regret for their wrongdoing.

But illicit downloading continued.

In the fall of 2003, two US students at Swarthmore College posted on the school’s network internal memorandums from Diebold as reference for a discussion on electronic voting machines. The college removed the documents from the Web site upon receiving a cease-and-desist order from Diebold, a manufacturer of online voting machines.

But Harvard University undergraduate Derek Slater re-posted the memos on his university’s Web site in support of the right to post the documents. Harvard soon received a cease-and-desist order from the company and pulled the memos. A few days later, a Harvard University legal counselor said such the posting had been fair use. Diebold made concessions, allowing the memos to be reposted to the Web site.

Two Swarthmore students and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit accusing Diebold of abusing copyright protection regulations. In 2004, the students formed a club, joining forces with more than 30 colleges to promote free culture, including the right to download and photocopy textbooks.

R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at the California Institute of Technology, could not accept the high cost of textbooks. He began refusing to recommend books costing more than US$200 and put an economics textbook he had authored online as a free download, both in PDF and editable formats.

McAfee said his book would have had a list price approaching US$200 if he had gone the traditional publishing route. Following his promotion of open textbooks, academics have donated enough textbooks for use at university economics departments, which no longer have to accept unreasonable prices or threats.

The education ministry and the IPO should ignore letters from publishers and promote open textbooks for university courses. Better still, they could pay professors to compile and publish free textbooks. This is the best way to eradicate illegal copying.

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