Thursday, March 21, 2013

Good Tidings

Back at the beginning of time, well, to be honest Rabett Run, but did anything exist before, Eli had two excellent rants (Rant I and Rant II) about textbook prices and the machinations of the publishers. As you may have noticed in the US when your kid goes to college, the price of General Chemistry textbooks has shattered the $200 barrier.  On the other hand, in markets where students are free to buy their own books, the price is much lower. For example, the International paperback edition (you can only get the hardcover in the US) costs ~$80 list and you can get it discounted.  It is even less expensive in less expensive countries, which brings Eli to the law.

It turns out that the publishers think it illegal to bring textbooks into the US from overseas, bought at those lower prices, and they sue people who do, or at least those who raise their heads above the parapets.  Thanks to David Post at Volokh, Eli can now report that it is no longer so.  In a case decided by the US Supreme Court

Petitioner, Supap Kirtsaeng, a citizen of Thailand, moved to the United States in 1997 to study mathematics at Cornell University.  . . .While he was studying in the United States, Kirtsaeng asked his friends and family in Thailand to buy copies of foreign edition English-language textbooks at Thai book shops, where they sold at low prices, and mail them to him in the United States. Kirtsaeng would then sell them, reimburse his family and friends, and keep the profit.

In 2008 Wiley brought this federal lawsuit against Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement. Wiley claimed that Kirtsaeng's unauthorized importation of its books and his later resale of those books amounted to an infringement of Wiley's exclusive right to distribute as well as related import prohibition. Kirtsaeng replied that the books he had acquired were "`lawfully made'" and that he had acquired them legitimately. Thus, in his view, "first sale" doctrine permitted him to resell or otherwise dispose of the books without the copyright owner's further permission.
Justice Breyer writing for the court found for Kirtsaieng remanding the case back to the Court of Appeals whose decision was reversed.  The dissenters were Ginsberg, Scalia and Kennedy. 

On Tuesday, Eli was visited by a textbook rep flogging his wares.  The Rabett mentioned that he really was not interested in asking his students to buy a $200 book, but maybe they would sell the less expensive paperback or the hardcover that they sold overseas, only to receive the snort version of you should live so long.  Eli suspects that in this brave new world he has lived that long.  Many are already thinking of this as a business opportunity.


27 comments:

Hank Roberts said...

Prediction: they'll shrinkwrap the textbooks, assert that breaking the seal accepts the license wrapped inside, and the license will say you're only renting the use of the contents of the media for one academic year, after which it will self-compost unless you input a renewal code obtainable online for a small processing fee.

"We are property." -- Charles Fort

Anonymous said...

My prediction: they'll continue to sell a high quality textbook in the US at $200 a pop, and do something weird with the low-priced Thai textbooks so that they aren't perfect substitutes anymore. (sort of like they often rearrange chapters in textbooks to try and dissuade the used textbook market)

-MMM

David B. Benson said...

My prediction is that the read-it-on-your-handheld-almost-for-free will quickly capture the market and the publishers along with the booksellers will go the way of the dodo.

William Connolley said...

Hank - the books already say "This book is authorized for sale in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East only and may be not exported out of these territories...". I think its interesting that the court focussed entirely on copyright law, and doesn't at all appeared to consider the implicit contract you make by buying the book with that text included. Were you a libertarian (or Hobbesian) you'd be obliged to consider that text binding on the purchaser. It looks to me, though, as though Wiley didn't attempt to argue on that text.

If you take that (implicit) logic to its conclusion, they're saying shrink-wrap type terms are invalid.

Anonymous said...

totally unrelated picture of a rabbit: https://fbcdn-sphotos-e-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-snc7/388565_572136882805059_1753265512_n.jpg

Jay said...

"If you take that (implicit) logic to its conclusion, they're saying shrink-wrap type terms are invalid."

EULAs have always been invalid. Mostly.

Generally speaking T&C play second fiddle to statutory rights which vary from place to place. Here in the EU we have awesome consumer laws across the board and we laugh at your puny Shrink Wrap messages.

In the US it's done state to state. T&Cs usually play to the lowest common denominator and won't apply everywhere (or even anywhere else).

If ever a wrangle happens, it generally falls back to the consumer law in the place that the consumer purchased the goods/services, not the place the licensee chooses to pursue the case.

At least, that's what I heard.

Anonymous said...

The real scam (the way they keep students over a barrel) is the requirement to buy the online "access code".

You can get pretty much all the information you will find in an intro chem book online for free and if you just have to have the textbook you can buy a used one or even better rent.

but if you need that access code...

An intro chem book is one of those things that will be used once for a very brief period and then gather dust for 40 years in someone's garage before it is tossed out with the ipods, computers, smartphones and all the other junk our society produces.

Mine (Brown and Lemay, late 70's vintage) is just about ready for the junk heap (if I can find it) -- though I'd bet not much of the very basic (or even acidic) chemistry has changed in the last 40 years.

Of course, they keep coming out with newer versions so they can milk the golden cow for as long as they can.

~@:>

dhogaza said...

"I think its interesting that the court focussed entirely on copyright law, and doesn't at all appeared to consider the implicit contract you make by buying the book with that text included. Were you a libertarian (or Hobbesian) you'd be obliged to consider that text binding on the purchaser."

Um, really? US copyright law has provisions to protect publishers and grant rights to purchasers. Any EULA attached to a book published in the US that diminishes the rights granted to the purchaser by federal copyright law is non-binding.

So the argument's a non-starter, unless you believe that publishers get to pick and chose the bits of US copyright law that apply to their overseas books once they're imported into the US.

Which is essentially Wiley's argument. They're arguing that the portion of US copyright law giving the purchaser rights does not apply to a book published and purchased overseas. The EULA attached to the book is irrelevant, the only relevant argument is whether or not that portion of us copyright law applies.

You can be damn sure that Wiley didn't argue that the part of the law that protects publishers doesn't apply.

What is "libertarian" about allowing publishers pick-and-chose which bits of US copyright law applies once one of their foreign books is imported into the US?

Does your philosophy allow the rest of us to pick-and-chose which laws we'll follow, or which bits of a particular law?

EliRabett said...

IEHO this is really going to put the cat amongst the pigeons wrt to such things as published music and plays, and even recorded music.

One price to charge them all,
One price to pay them

Welcome to the brave new world.

EliRabett said...

There are companies that provide stand alone homework systems at lower cost which many of us are using (ALeKs for one).

Hank Roberts said...

> the implicit contract you make
> by buying the book with that
> text included

Uh, oh. I own quite a few mutually contradictory books. What implicit contracts have I made by buying them?

> may be not exported out
I'm good on that specific bit.
I didn't export anything out.

This reminds me of the day in fifth grade when a new student brought out his American History book from the fourth grade -- he'd been in a different state's school system at the time, and he was very confused because he somehow hadn't learned the same fourth grade history the rest of us had.

Turned out the publishers had one version with a few pages about the Civil War for the northern states, and a different version with several thick chapters about, um what did they call it? The Late Unpleasantness, or perhaps it was the Glorious and Romantic Although Thus Far Unsuccessful War for Southern Independence --- for the southern school systems.

Fortunately being in the only integrated school system in the state -- teachers all Dominican Nuns -- we were encouraged to think about the puzzle.

We compared textbooks and learned a lot that, in the US in the 1950s, wasn't widely talked about.

Haven't trusted textbooks since.

Got me set early on the skeptical check-your-citations path right and proper, they did.

dhogaza said...

"IEHO this is really going to put the cat amongst the pigeons wrt to such things as published music and plays, and even recorded music."

I don't think anyone abuses the system for non-digital media nearly as much as the textbook publishers do.

And I don't see how this would impact fees collected when you play recorded music or perform published music for money, as in a bar. Commercial performance isn't covered by "first sale" doctrine. This doctrine is strictly about what you can do with the physical media (i.e. lend it, sell it, etc).

This ruling certainly doesn't say anything about derivative works so shouldn't affect licensing of same at all.

Of course digital media has its own special (nasty) law, the DCMA. This ruling is only an interpretation of how traditional copyright law applies to traditional media, not digital media covered by the DCMA.

dhogaza said...

DMCA ...

kT said...

An intro chem book is one of those things that will be used once for a very brief period and then gather dust for 40 years in someone's garage before it is tossed out with the ipods, computers, smartphones and all the other junk our society produces.

I've got a large collection of that kind of stuff, and every kind of cable and adapter I'll ever need in multiple copies, including advanced textbooks. I've found that most of the cutting edge stuff is in multicolored print and graphics bound in 3 ring binders.

I'm good. I'm set for life. Parts is parts. And I recycle and give away as much of it as I can too. But I remain in awe of the stuff modern stuff I find in binders. It makes the textbooks look lame.

John Mashey said...

One of the best classes I had in high school was AP American History, which was 5 75-minute periods/week, and usually an hour of homework per night.

The teacher rarely lecture, mostly asked questions, and you could say anything, but had to back it up (or better-prepared students would shred your arguments.)

The set of textbooks and readings were purposefully contradictory, which was very stressful for some students, as essay tests often required us to weight the differences, assess balance of evidence, not just repeat facts.

My wife is British and we have 2 sets of history books. One set thinks 1776 was A Big Deal and the other set thinks there was a spot of trouble in the colonies.

Anonymous said...

There are companies that provide stand alone homework systems at lower cost which many of us are using (ALeKs for one).


So why does a student need to buy a textbook at all? (to say nothing of shell out $200+ for a new one)

I don't know how good they are, but there are online texts for general chemistry, eg here

MIT offers entire courses online which don't require textbooks.

Lots of students never even look at the textbook, especially in intro courses, so it really seems like a waste to even require one.

It's understandable for more advanced topics, but for intro courses, doesn't make much sense, and especially given the cost to students who are already paying through the nose for their college education.


~@:>

dhogaza said...

"My wife is British and we have 2 sets of history books. One set thinks 1776 was A Big Deal and the other set thinks there was a spot of trouble in the colonies."

One result was transportation of those convicted of crimes switching from the US south to Australia.

Another had Britain switching her focus from the US to India.

If any British history minimizes the importance it has failed to recognize why the British government at the time was so focused on keeping the colonies in the empire (George and friends by force, Pitt and friends by acknowledging their importance and making political compromises based on this).

And, no, this is not particularly an American POV. England argued that the loss of the colonies would be a disaster.

And they were right. English is no longer a world power. Case closed.

Maybe that second set of history books y'all own suggests that England was relieved to be demoted to 2nd rate power rather than the most powerful force in the world?

More likely is "england still rules the world, it's just that most people don't recognize it".

dhogaza said...

"MIT offers entire courses online which don't require textbooks."

MIT rocks, and while early, they're not the only ones (I happen to know the person who was largely responsible for MIT deciding to do so).


"Lots of students never even look at the textbook, especially in intro courses, so it really seems like a waste to even require one."

Test questions are often drawn directly from textbook problem sets, or supplemental material. Subject matter's broad enough that if you don't focus on what the textbook (and course) focuses on, you might not narrow down on what will be on the tests.

Russell Seitz said...

As a bipartisan Easter celebration, bunnies should ask Congress to impose a 10% tax on all climate science textbooks.

If the revenue were used exclusively to bribe WUWT & Human Events fans to read the things, the complexion of the climate wars would be forever changed

Anonymous said...

Test questions are often drawn directly from textbook problem sets, or supplemental material. Subject matter's broad enough that if you don't focus on what the textbook (and course) focuses on, you might not narrow down on what will be on the tests.

While that is certainly true in many (if not most) cases, there is no reason it HAS to be that way. It's up to the Professor to decide where to draw the test questions from.

And the comment of Eli's that I was referring to was the fact that there are other problem sets available than the one's for particular texts (the latter often require an online access code,which students pay through the nose for)

It really puzzles me that if there ARE alternatives for the problem sets to the ones in the textbooks (as Eli indicates) from which professors can certainly draw (along with lecture notes) for test questions, why does a professor have to require a text?

It is actually illogical.

It simply makes no sense to be decrying $200+ text book costs for your students when there are viable alternatives: online texts or using no text at all.

But of course those alternatives require a little creativity and effort on the part of the professor. Much easier just to require the text and assign the prepackaged problems from it for homework and exams. or even better yet, just read the text in lecture (which some professors have been known to do). In other words, there is a laziness factor involved.

~@:>

Hank Roberts said...

speaking of good tidings: if this stuff can be used to fill a balloon and hold its shape after having the air pumped out, we'll have vacuum blimps. The material is a graphene aerogel.

Graphene -- something useful to do with all that carbon after burning the hydrogen, eh?
http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/03/22/Worlds-lightest-material-created/UPI-81041364005475/?spt=hts&or=4

Martin Vermeer said...

Russell's proposal is the best I have read in a while, and might even work if it were possible to bribe folks to understand things

Martin Vermeer said...

Graphene, also for batteries:

http://boingboing.net/2013/02/21/graphene-supercapacitors-could.html

BTW Hank, before building a graphene balloon, consider a graphene single-stage-to-orbit shuttle with an obscene mass ratio ;-)

kT said...

A carbon based adatom and/or intercalation simulator would be a rather quicker way to produce useful results.

Hank Roberts said...

http://t.qkme.me/3t4gaa.jpg

John said...

At my public university, the cost of textbooks is large fraction of the total cost of higher education.
Of course, it's a much smaller fraction at private universities !!

For diligent students, a good textbook can mean that the student doesn't have to take notes during the lecture. Use the textbook as your lecture notes.

caveat emptor said...

England argued that the loss of the colonies would be a disaster. And they were right. English is no longer a world power. Case closed.

Except that Britain's zenith as world power was probably 100 years after losing the future USA