Here we have an...interesting...patent (originally sighted here). The likelihood of it ever actually being implemented strikes me as slim, for any number of reasons (it could be prohibitively expensive, for starters). But it's certainly interesting to contemplate. The problem? Books cost too much! (Whoops, that's the Crown Books ad.) To be more precise: the argument is that textbooks cost too much not because of the "greed of academic presses," but because of pirates, pirates everywhere. Even faculty have proven complicit, "turning a blind eye when students appear in class with photocopied pages," or, even worse, "placing texts in the library reserve where they can be photocopied." This is before we get to more nefarious means of distribution. Our patent holder has the solution: "A system and method for preventing unauthorized access to copyrighted academic texts is provided. The present invention integrates trademark licenses, discussion boards, and grade content into a web-based system that provides incentives for all interested parties to comply with copyright law while also enhancing the overarching academic mission to create and disseminate knowledge." How would this work? Licensing.
Under this plan, professors would have to request a license to use a copyrighted textbook on their syllabus. Once the license was issued, the publisher would build a mandatory discussion board for the course, which students would have to register for using a Magic KeyTM, obtained only by purchasing a new copy of the textbook. (OK, he doesn't call it the Magic Key, but you get the idea.) To make the stick heavier, this discussion board should be a "significant portion" of our new-textbook-ifying student's grade in the course. (Authors even have access to the discussion boards.) But wait, you say! What about used textbooks? Why, students who have the temerity to purchase used books will still be charged to access the discussion board, "thereby reducing the incentive of the publisher to issue new editions for the sole purpose of frustrating the used book market." (This is a wonderfully optimistic patent.) Student buys perfectly legal book from Amazon for .01? Pay a fee! (What's utterly baffling about this is that we're legally required--in my state, anyway--to supply our book orders well ahead of time so that students can find cheap used copies elsewhere.) Student takes a book out of a perfectly legal local library, as many of mine do? Pay a fee! University bookstores, which one might think would object to this line of attack, would no longer be able to profit on booksales at all, as publishers would exert complete control over book pricing (the books, of course, being priced more reasonably, now that piracy has been eliminated forever; did I mention that this was an optimistic patent?).1
The author does concede that some faculty might be grumpy, especially those addicted to controlling their own syllabi, assigning texts as they see fit, and the like. (Also, most of us are disinclined to monitor discussion boards on someone else's say-so.) But faculty get a nice shiny carrot: "In particular, a percentage of the net royalty income such as, for example, 50% generated from textbooks sold by presses using the system, collected in the US and Canada may be dedicated to litigating tenure disputes from both within and outside the university walls." Save the copyright, save the tenure. Or something like that. (I believe that I have mentioned that this is a remarkably optimistic patent.) In exchange for generous authors giving up a chunk of their frequently insubstantial change--if I'm reading this thing correctly, they're only entitled to 10% of the royalties generated by their book--they get extra armor against unfair tenure practices. (Seriously, unless you've co-edited a Brick [Norton anthology] or its equivalent, you aren't raking in any dough.) More precisely, someone else gets the extra armor, as probability would seem to dictate that the author isn't going to benefit directly. (Oh, and we're assuming that publishers would hand the money over. Yes, let's return to that optimism bit.)
Putting to one side the increasingly Rube Goldbergesque nature of the patent's solutions for dealing with misbehaving faculty and students, its connection to pedagogical practice in the humanities, at least, seems rather slim. Most of us aren't assigning "textbooks" per se, aside from the usual run of Norton, Longman, Broadview, etc. anthologies or the big intro to theory collections. (This is a problem with the discussion I linked in my first paragraph, as "textbook" seems to encompass monographs--which professors have been putting on reserve since the dawn of time.) Once you get into teaching novels, say, prices drop dramatically, thanks to the combined efforts of Oxford, Penguin, and company. While it would be exceptionally (OK, murderously) frustrating, it would be possible to put together a full poetry survey using nothing but free online texts, thereby saving students a bundle. (The absence of footnotes, though, would be a problem, unless you've found an edited text.) One suspects that the growing efforts to develop OS textbooks, whether for specific universities or the general academic population, might be more dangerous to traditionally textbook-heavy disciplines than piracy--or, you know, buying your books for .01 on Amazon, if that's how you prefer to save cash.
1 Although the author fails to mention it, his patent method would also cause considerable grief for independent bookstores in college towns, as many of them subsidize their operations by selling textbooks.