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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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« First Test of New Anti-Camcorder Law | Main | The Chill Felt 'Round the World »

August 7, 2005

Cracking the Books

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Princeton University, intellectual home of Edward Felten and Alex Halderman, has evidently begun to experiment with DRM'd textbooks. According to this post, there are quite a few digital restrictions being managed:

  • Textbook is locked to the computer where you downloaded it from;
  • Copying and burning to CD is prohibited;
  • Printing is limited to small passages;
  • Unless otherwise stated, textbook activation expires after 5 months (*gasp*);
  • Activated textbooks are not returnable;
  • Buyback is not possible.

There an official press release from the publishers for download here. It talks up price discrimination as a feature -- cash-strapped students won't have to pay as much for hobbled textbooks that disappear from their computers and can't be returned or resold to recoup costs. Isn't that nice?

I'm envisioning students taking Internet law and technology classes conducting their own experiment with these textbooks: documenting the ways they block the traditional activities associated with learning and scholarship.

Update: Professor Felten, who has been deluged with requests for comments: "First, a correction. As far as I can tell, Princeton University has no part in this experiment. The Princeton University Store, a bookstore that is located on the edge of the campus but is not affiliated with the University, will be the entity offering DRMed textbooks. ...

In any case, I don't see a reason to object to the U-Store offering these e-books, as long as students are informed about the DRM limitations and can still get the dead-tree version instead. ...

I don't object to other people wasting their money developing products that consumers won’t want. ...The problem with DRM is not that bad products can be offered, but that public policy sometimes protects bad products by thwarting the free market and the free flow of ideas. The market will kill DRM, if the market is allowed to operate."

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Tech


1. Crosbie Fitch on August 7, 2005 1:15 PM writes...

Any Princeton student who buys one of these DRMed textbooks evidently has less sense than the book requires to understand and greater existing disposable income than they could obtain through a degree-enabled career.

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2. Seth Finkelstein on August 7, 2005 6:13 PM writes...

One step closer to Richard Stallman's parable about the "Right To Read"

RMS's article sounded far-out when it was written. But it's looking like it was merely ahead of its time.

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3. Branko Collin on August 9, 2005 10:57 AM writes...

"In any case, I don't see a reason to object to the U-Store offering these e-books, as long as students are informed about the DRM limitations and can still get the dead-tree version instead."

I can see an objection: the two versions of the book are probably not in competition with each other. That is, if the bookstore wants to push its DRM trash, it could easily do so by upping the price of the text books. Perhaps such price discrimination is illegal, but who is going to sue the little bookshop at the edge of the campus?

If the two versions were competing though, this could be very beneficial to students, and increase the interest into ebooks and ebook reading devices.

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4. Branko Collin on August 9, 2005 11:21 AM writes...

Some further practical observations, based on my time as a student, ages ago...

We often used to buy second hand books from students who had already finished the course. Whether this was possible depended on which editions a professor would allow. These second hand books would cost somewhere between 25% and 50% of the original new price. Inflation sometimes also caught up with new prices, so that the difference between the price of a second hand book and a new one would even be greater.

To be able to compete with the second hand books, the DRMed ebooks would have to be sold at a price point below that of second hand books, not just below that of the new books.

Furthermore, many of the books I bought as a student would be written by the professors themselves. I am a bit surprised that the Princeton bookshop still needs to provide a service here: why don't the professors sell directly to the students?

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