29 August, 2013

Free Textbooks for All?

Anyone who's ever been in higher education, be it in law or any other subject, will vividly remember just how expensive textbooks are. This applies to both new and used ones, with some easily exceeding the 100 dollar mark. In the course of several years of education this can amount to a very large sum of money. Textbook prices have increased over 80% in the last ten years alone, while continuing to increase at a 6% annual pace. In a negative economic climate it is no surprise students are against this constant increase, and are using every avenue possible to mitigate the financial dent textbooks make. A new movement has emerged on the students' part which seems to make a questionable move to change things.

A familiar sight to most University students
The movement in question is the Textbook Liberation Project, which aims to give access to all students at the University of South Florida to textbooks for free. The project's founder, Tristan Lear, has stated that his aim is to "...take down the publishing industry and replace it with an alternative open source system". While arguably hyperbolic in its goal, the movement can be said to have the right motives, however their approach is wholly wrong from a legal perspective.

What Mr. Lear is doing is providing free PDF copies of textbooks for certain classes, while encouraging others to share their books in an equal fashion. He has also passed on flyers which contain scannable links to copies of textbooks which students can download directly onto their phones, tablets and computers. This, in Mr. Lear's mind, is purely an action against both the publishing industry and the book stores which provide legitimate copies of books both on and off-campus.

So what could Mr. Lear be liable for? Under US copyright legislation there is no particular provision which imposes secondary liability, although there are provisions which protect from it. The courts in Intellectual Reserve v Utah Lighthouse Ministry saw that the situation is not completely black and white even though there are no provisions for secondary liability: "Although the copyright statute does not expressly impose liability for contributory infringement, the absence of such express language in the copyright statute does not preclude the imposition of liability for copyright infringements on certain parties who have not themselves engaged in the infringing activity".

Indeed one could argue that Mr. Lear could be liable for contributory infringement through inducement, due to the fact that he is fully aware that the people he distributes the information and links to can infringe copyright, and arguably do so when presented with the option. He actively participated in his cohorts' infringement, knowing full well that they are using his methods to create infringing copies of textbooks (cases which deal with the subject matter more extensively are Sony Corporation v Universal Studios and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios v Grokster). In his own words he intends to utilize mass infringement as a means to overthrow the current copyright system for another, clearly presenting a motive to compel others to infringe copyright.

The world of academia is harsh and unforgiving, both financially and intellectually. Although one can be sympathetic to the financial hardship that modern students face, having personally experienced it for the last few years myself, Mr. Lear's approach and mentality are not ones which harbor a healthy and open forum of discussion and change. Should students be able to contravene long-standing copyright laws and practices purely to save money? The answer from a legal stand-point is a simple no, but arguably there is room for improvement on part of both the publishers and institutions of higher education. Whether Mr. Lear will be taken to court remains to be seen, but should his movement start spreading into the wider United States publishers would have incentive to do so to nip the issue at the bud.

Source: TorrentFreak

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