Piracy is not the solution to steep textbook prices

Benroy Chan

Editor's Note: This column appears in a point-counterpoint on the ethics of textbook piracy. Read its counterpoint here.

Every college student has seen the steep price tags of required textbooks, adding to the already large financial burden of college. Even if it means breaking the law, more and more individuals are turning to file sharing websites for their textbook needs.

n the decade between 2002 and 2012, textbook prices increased by 82 percent, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In addition, the College Board reports that the average student will spend $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.

Due to the perceived low chance of getting caught, textbook piracy may seem like a great option — but it just isn’t. Title 17 of the United States Code upholds copyright infringement as illegal, and students who pirate textbooks are accessing information without paying for it, hurting the qualified authors who produced it.

Before understanding the issue of textbook piracy, it’s important to analyze why their prices are so high in the first place. NBC News explains that students are captive consumers to an oligopolistic market. Students have no say in what books they have to purchase, and as a result, a few powerful publishing companies don’t need to worry about competitive pricing.

To bring a real end to the rising cost of textbooks, the public needs to destroy the textbook market’s structure as an oligopoly. In order to do so, students must find competitively viable alternatives to traditional textbooks. If successful, these publishing companies will be forced to either lower prices due to decreased demand or simply go bankrupt.

According to an analysis by Ethan Senack with the U.S. Student Public Interest Research Groups, “open textbooks” may offer a real solution. Authors collaborate on these books under an open license, and as a result, they are completely free to access online.

Like traditional publishers, open textbook companies ensure a high-quality product through editing and review, but their textbooks are funded by grants instead of purchases. Production will never be a free process, but the way open textbooks are produced allows everyone to benefit. If the support for these books gains enough traction, traditional publishing companies have a lot to worry about.

Piracy isn’t the way to battle the rising prices of traditional textbooks. Instead, students need to express interest in open-source textbooks, and professors should be willing to adopt them. Open textbooks finally offer a solution to an expensive problem and in time, may conquer the rule of corrupt publishers.

Chan is a journalism freshman from Sugar Land. Follow him on Twitter @BenroyChan.