On Campus

Students save money illegally downloading textbooks

Publishers could take legal action: expert

Christine Rose/Flickr

After fees for the semester have been paid and school supplies have been bought, there’s one cost to Canadian university students that can often weigh heavy on their wallets.

The textbooks many have to buy for multiple courses can often cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but some students have found a way to hold on to their cash.

Natalie Fasullo is one of them.

The 19-year-old University of Guelph student only spent $225 on all five of her textbooks, estimating she saved over $775.

Her savings were the result of obtaining four of her textbooks in a way that qualifies as copyright infringement — she downloaded one, bought two as digital copies for $15 and $10 each, and was given another digital copy for free by a friend.

“Textbooks are insanely expensive, and I feel like the textbook companies are ripping us off,” said Fasullo, explaining why she obtained her textbooks the way she did.

“It’s not fair that we have to pay somewhere from $500 to $1000 per semester just to take the courses properly, with the text.”

Twenty-one-year-old Mohsen Taeb, a Ryerson University student who has also downloaded textbooks, agreed.

“Textbooks are $120 and up, at least,” he said. “It pains you to pay (for the books) with your own money.”

The high price of textbooks isn’t the only reason students are opting for cheaper or free alternatives.

The frequent updating of textbook editions often forces students to buy the latest version of the book instead of cheaper, second-hand ones from their peers, said Taeb.

The situation also means students looking to sell textbooks after a course in an attempt to recoup some of their costs have a hard time doing so.

But there’s a reason textbooks are as expensive as they are, said Michael Harrison, the vice-president of University of Toronto Press Publishing.

It’s because they contain “complicated subject (matter) that needs logical material to explain it,” he said.

While books with less in-depth subject matter would be cheaper, Harrison said the publishing house doesn’t make the decision on just how much information goes into a textbook.

“Publishers react to what authors…and instructors say is needed in their courses,” he said. “Students may say that they don’t need to know all of the material (in a textbook) but their instructors think they do.”

Although there are no records of Canadian publishers taking legal action against students illicitly accessing their textbooks, Harrison believes it could be a possibility in the future.

The act of illegally downloading textbooks is a form of copyright infringement under the Canadian Copyright Act, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Canadian Heritage.

If publishers choose, they can take legal action against students who obtain illicit copies, Genevieve Myre said in an email.

People who are selling illegal copies of textbooks, whether it be photocopies or PDFs, can also be sued for copyright infringement by publishers, Myre said.

Those who intend to sell copyright-protected books would experience “more severe” penalties than those simply obtaining illegal textbooks, she added.

Yet despite the possibility of repercussions, students downloading free textbooks or looking for cheaper online copies appears to be a rising trend.

Research published in July by the U.S.-based Book Industry Study Group found that the number of students accessing textbooks from “unauthorized websites,” rose to 34 per cent from 20 per cent in the U.S. in 2010.

The number of students photocopying and scanning textbook content has also risen to 31 per cent from 20 per cent.

While there is no current data about how Canadian students access textbooks, Nadine Vassallo, the project manager for research and information at BISG, estimated the trend in Canada is probably “really similar” to American statistics.

—Jessica Lepore

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