Friday, November 24, 2006

Publishers Chasing Universities for Copyright

Back on November 8 and 9, I did a couple of posts about the high costs of textbooks.

Today a friend (Thanks, CN) emailed me an article that appeared in Monday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer (PI). The introductory paragraph said:

Book publishers say professors who post long excerpts of protected texts on the Internet without permission cost the industry at least $20 million a year. Cornell University, the Ivy League college in Ithaca, N.Y., agreed in September to regulate work its faculty puts on the Web, in response to a threatened lawsuit from the Association of American Publishers.

I immediately went to the AAP's website to check for press releases.

Sure enough, on September 19, the AAP issued a release in which it said:

As part of ongoing discussions over the manner in which Cornell University provides copyrighted course content to students in digital formats, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and Cornell recently announced a new set of copyright guidelines to govern the use of electronic course materials on the library’s electronic course reserves system, on faculty and departmental web pages, and through the various “course management” websites used at Cornell. The guidelines affirm that the use of such
content is governed by the same legal principles that apply to printed materials.

When I was in graduate school from 1990 to 1993, I always appreciated the few professors who put together a bundle of articles and chapters from various textbooks in order to save students from having to buy multiple books. I would pick up the photocopied bundle at the school's copy shop. The price included the copies and the copyright fees.

According to the Seattle PI article, "The Cornell campus store assembles course packs and handles payment of permission fees, which alone are 'considerably in excess' of $200,000 per year."

Since that time, the outrageous cost of textbooks has more teachers seeking alternatives to asking students to pay for three or four books per class. In 2004, Congress held hearings on the escalating cost of books (the estimates at that time were that four years of college could carry a textbook bill of $4,000). No relief for students came out of those hearings.

However, with the increasing popularity of the Internet, many professors have been posting the course material online.

Tracey Armstrong, the chief operating officer of the Copyright Clearance Center, which collects royalties from universities on behalf of publishers, "estimates that publishers' losses may be more than $20 million a year, based on the $27 million in annual royalties her agency collects." (PI)

Patricia Schroeder, head of the AAP, said: AAP hopes that Cornell's actions will set an example for other colleges and universities and provide them an opportunity to review their own practices and institute similar guidelines."


Laura Vivanco said...

This ties in with what you were saying about electronic versions of textbooks, doesn't it?

Isabel Swift from Harlequin posted about the Cornell decision some months ago, but the document she quoted from only said that the decision was made 'As part of ongoing discussions', not 'in response to a threatened lawsuit'. I suppose it means the same thing, but the first is a more polite way of putting things once a compromise has been reached, and the latter makes for a more interesting article in a newspaper.

Maya said...

Laura: I agree with your assessment.

The interesting thing to me is that the textbook publishers are actively pursuing remedies to copyright infringement on the Internet by colleges. The entire issue of copyrights and the Internet is coming to a head with threatened lawsuits like this against colleges and Internet companies like Google, MySpace and YouTube.

Laura Vivanco said...

I feel a bit dim, now. I hadn't noticed that you'd mentioned the textbook issue right at the very start of the column. I must have forgotten that by the time I posted my comment. Sorry.

It'll be very interesting to see how all these issues around electronic/online publication work out. Booksquare's been discussing how it might affect authors' royalties here and here. I hadn't even thought of that aspect of things, but it would be shocking if authors didn't get the benefits they should be getting from all these developments.

Maya said...

Laura: In my mind, the Booksquare rants are missing the point. When e-publishing explodes, the traditional publishers are going to have to renegotiate because they'll have plenty of competition online. Look at the number of e-publishers that exist and are flourishing now--before a portable and economical e-reading device has even captured the public's interest. When an e-reading device does for reading what i-Pod did for tunes, the game will change. Everyone will be scrambling to e-publish.

If traditional publishers do not pay a fair rate, authors will migrate to other places that do. E-pubs are accustomed to paying 33% to 50% royalties because of their lower costs to publish.

I'm more interested in the companies that are positioning themselves to take a bite out of the publishing industry than in worrying about "forcing" Random House or Simon & Schuster to negotiate. Market forces will correct the traditional publishers' approach faster and more efficiently than any authors' guild or union can accomplish.

Laura Vivanco said...

I wonder how all this is going to affect libraries. Do you have any ideas on that?

Maya said...

Laura: As you obviously understand, the role of the library is changing. Its primary function of information storage and retrieval is increasingly being co-opted by the Internet.

The Digital Library Reserve provides virtual copies of books to many library systems now. The service allows users to download books online without stepping foot outside of the house. When the book is due, it simply disappears from the user's computer.

University libraries have been struggling with this problem for some years. One of the first posts I did on this blog (9/19/05) talked about how universities are scrambling to make their libraries viable in today's world.

I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about this issue since that post a year ago. I recently visited the Dallas Public Library at three different times on three different days. During every visit, even at 8:45 PM, the computers were jammed with adults and children both. I suspect that successful libraries in the future will assume a more active role in the community, moving away from the "Shh, be quiet" attitude toward encouraging the community to utilize the facilities.

While affluent and middle-class users will depend on the library's virtual resources, the poor and disenfranchised will still need physical access to computers.

Another thought along the lines of community involvement is that libraries may chose to emphasize their social role, offering places for writers' groups and book clubs to meet and have lunch or even dinner.

Like many others, libraries are struggling to find their place in the digital age.

Laura Vivanco said...

The Digital Library Reserve provides virtual copies of books to many library systems now. The service allows users to download books online without stepping foot outside of the house. When the book is due, it simply disappears from the user's computer.

Wow. We have nothing like that in the UK (or at least, not that I know of).

Maya said...

You can look it up at

It's already in use in a small suburb of Dallas called Garland. My best friend uses it all the time to check out books.

Harlequin is using it. I blogged about it on November 28, 2005.