Pirating textbooks can be ethically justified

Ashvin Govil

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

Textbooks are a vital part of any student’s education — they provide a structured and comprehensive basis for almost every class’s material. Unfortunately, textbook prices have followed the trend of increasing college tuition prices in recent decades. Combined with the fact that the actual writers of textbooks get little to no money out of textbook sales, it is not difficult for a student to justify pirating a textbook from the Internet in order to save money and reduce a student’s debt.

Textbook publishing companies have monopolies over textbooks for a specific class because students are forced to purchase a certain book for each course. This means they can charge obsequiously high prices for their books. Consequently, textbook prices have skyrocketed by 812 percent since 1978, while college tuition increased by 450 percent over the same time period and general prices increased by 250 percent.

Textbook companies often have professors require new editions with only a few minor changes or new online codes. This can make buying a used book — one of the only legal ways students can save on textbooks — ineffective. Students would either need a newer version than the used copy or have to pay a hefty fee to access the online materials, since the online code packaged with a new book is only good for one use.

The authors of textbooks only get 12 percent of the actual textbook price as royalties, so pirating textbooks mainly affects the publishers. However, the savings for students can be immense.

The average student spends almost $700 in a year on textbooks alone, according to the National Association of College Stores. Over four years, pirating textbooks could allow a student to save $2,800, a number that could easily shave off years of loan payments.

Pirating a textbook does not necessarily fall under the same cloudy moral realm of pirating movies or TV shows. You aren’t required to watch the last season of “Game of Thrones” or the last “Twilight” movie — both of which are reasonably priced anyway — but you are required to have certain books in order to take the classes you need to get your degree. Not being able to boycott buying books means that publishers don’t have to be accountable to students and thus have free rein in what they charge.

Considering that pirating books offers the only avenue for students to protest the publisher’s price gouging and other unfair practices, while simultaneously reducing their debt burden, pirating textbooks is morally distinct from other forms of piracy.

Govil is a computer science freshman from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @ashvio.