A Problem with eBooks

Technology has introduced a problem into education. It's not a technical problem, but in an effort to overzealously protect copyright and intellectual property, publishers have created technical solutions that are later used inappropriately. The result is limiting student access to material that would otherwise be freely accessible.

Here's a concrete example: Homer's Iliad.

First, it should be established immediately that the Iliad is a public domain work. Homer is long dead and has no claim to royalties. Recent translations may be copyrighted, but there are enough older translations in the public domain to compensate, and many faculty choose to teach based on these older translations to ease the cost burden on students.

Second, we must recognize that a work in the public domain has no restrictions on copying. In fact, here is an online source for downloading the Samuel Butler translation of the Iliad from ManyBooks.net for free.

So far, so good. In fact, the same version is available from eFollett, the company that operates the Rutgers University bookstore. They charge $3.49, but that is perfectly reasonable to support the service and make a small profit. While it's interesting that the free site actually gives more options (large print, formatted for iPod, etc), that's still not where the problem lies. Notice the "Digital Rights Information" on the eFollett site:

Copy: not allowed

This is not a merely intellectual problem. Put yourself in the position of a student. You go to the computer lab. You check your course syllabus, see that some of the works are available online, pay your $3.49, and download your eBook of a public domain work, on the lab computer. And now, copy your downloaded file to a disk, so you can read it at home. Sorry, no, you cannot do that. Copy: not allowed. Neither is lending, although eFollett does allow you to print it twice a day for a year (almost).

It's an absurd situation, but unfortunately too common and becoming more frequent. Faculty and instructors can help by being more aware of resources like http://ManyBooks.net/ and http://www.gutenberg.org/, but ultimately there is a responsibility to insist that public works and public education remain public, including the resources and stored knowledge of previous generations.

This is a cultural problem. Our society and our laws have shifted from the Enlightenment ideals of a democratic and educated populace to the business-centric emphasis on preserving the right to make money on intellectual property. The 20th century turned copyright from a limited protection for those who applied for it to a lifelong (99 year) automatic protection, introduced technologies to enforce copyright, and made it a felony to try to circumvent the technologies. And when there's opportunity, a business will apply the same technologies to public property, as eFollett has done.

The problem is more prevalent in digital music downloading and "piracy", but we are slowing moving to the same battle over textbooks. There's more. See http://free-culture.cc/ for the legal and historical perspective.

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This page contains a single entry by Joseph Delaney published on August 30, 2006 3:54 PM.

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