Almost every year in August, just before the start of the new school year, TorrentFreak is contacted by individuals and groups determined to do something about a long-standing annoyance.
That problem is school textbooks, their astonishing cost, and the fact that they constitute a compulsory purchase. Students must spend anything north of around $1000 per year on textbooks and unnecessary annual updates often render last year’s product obsolete, meaning that getting a used bargain is not really an option.
This unrealistic situation, every complainant notes, is down to the monopolistic practices of the major textbook publishers. In the past torrents sites have tried to do something about the problem, but this year student Tristan Lear is on a one-man mission to seriously disrupt the market.
Speaking with TorrentFreak, Lear says that his mission is to take down the publishing industry and replace it with an alternative open source system.
“Textbooks and pharmaceutical meds have one thing in common: their manufacturers market their products to someone other than the person who actually has to pay for it,” Lear says.
“The publishing industry no longer has a product to sell, because modern technology (the Internet, wiki structures, etc) can better facilitate the relationship between content authors, editors, professors and students. According to the capitalist narrative, a better system or product should compete and win against an incumbent piece of crap. This hasn’t happened though, due to the position of the textbook publishers in what we now call the academic-industrial complex.”
Lear says the solution is to overthrow those in control by emulating the “hacker ethos” previously used against the recording industry. He believes that if all students get access to free books then the landscape which shift dramatically.
Lear’s baby, “The Textbook Liberation Project”, certainly has lofty aims but it had modest beginnings. When he learned in class that students couldn’t afford books and also found them regularly out of stock, Lear began offering them free PDF copies. Soon the whole class was lining up to save hundreds of dollars.
Reaction from teachers and professors has been mixed. Some were unsure of the ethics of handing out copies but also recognized the unethical business model operated by the publishers. But while some chose to turn a blind eye, others warned Lear he should expect to get in trouble. So far there have been no repercussions.
As a result things are now stepping up a gear. Lear is holding teach-ins in front of the USF campus for-profit bookstore in order to educate passing students on where they can get books for free. But in order to make himself less of a target (linking to material online could be problematic), Lear has taken his ‘pirate links’ into the physical domain.
By handing out flyers like the one shown below, he gives students the ability to scan the codes and go directly to book downloads via their cellphones and tablets.
Not surprisingly, Lear is facing opposition. A representative from USF told Lear that his work could cause issues due to the contractual obligations between the University and Barnes and Noble, the on-campus book supplier. This, however, seems to be part of the plan.
“We aim for maximum financial impact against the publishing industry and maximum political impact among the University administration and faculty. This will force the complicit parties to declare which side they want to stand on,” Lear says.
While there are certainly pricing issues, the undergraduate says that people shouldn’t presume this is only about getting stuff for free. Lear says the issue is a moral one, and his project has a firm eye on what Aaron Swartz believed.
But moral issues and open source textbook dreams aside, is what Lear is doing illegal?
“Some lawyers have cautioned me, others have encouraged me. The EFF worries that the case law surrounding my case has to do with ‘inducement’ or the degree to which I encourage infringement,” he explains.
On the other hand, Lear showed us an email from another lawyer who described the effort as “noble” and went on to ask an interesting question.
“This raises a fascinating First Amendment issue; can the DMCA — as a government enactment — be used to infringe upon the rights of individuals to simply talk about locations of open source materials? I do not know whether or not such an issue has ever been addressed by the federal courts,” he wrote.
So another year, another initiative against what is clearly an incredibly unpopular business model. So far, no one – including dedicated torrent sites – have been able to do much about it, but if Lear has his way his movement will spread and eventually the cartels and monopoly will collapse. No doubt, it’s a hot topic right now. (1) (2)