Free the Textbook: The Revolution Marches on…

Now that Textbook Torrents seems to be offline, just as a new academic year is getting underway, what’s a poor struggling student to do when faced with exorbitant textbook prices? Well there’s a plethora of sites and services currently under development that have made it their mission to combat high textbook prices. One that’s been around for a couple of years, but that seems to be undergoing a rebirth, is Textbook Revolution. It appears to be a student-led organization that is close to launching a wiki.:

TBR’s mission is to drive the adoption of free textbooks by teachers and professors. We want to get these books into classrooms. Our approach is to bring all of the free textbooks we can find together in one place, review them, and let the best rise to the top and find their way into the hands of students in classrooms around the world. At Textbook Revolution, you’ll find links to textbooks and select educational resources of all kinds. Some of the books are PDF files, others are viewable only online as e-books. Most books are aimed at undergraduates, but there are at least a few resources at every level, from kindergarten to post-doc. All of the books are offered for free by their respective copyright holders for online viewing. Beyond that, each book is as individual as the author behind it.

This volunteer run strategy may or may not be sustainable in the long term. College students are among the most passionate soldiers in the movement against the mighty publishing cartel that puts profit before pupils, but they also tend to have a limited horizon – usually four years. No one every thought that Wikipedia would evolve to its current status, but it has taken more than four years to get there.

Textbook Revolution  summarizes it mission as follows on the site’s FAQ page:

The textbook industry today is run by a small group of very large corporations who care very little about education and very much about maximizing profits. The industry charges outrageous prices for new textbooks while simultaneously doing everything it can to make older versions unusable or obsolete. There is simply no reason that a new calculus textbook should cost $157. The study of calculus, at least the type of calculus that most of us need to study in high school or undergraduate programs, has not changed significantly in decades. For an in-depth review of all that is wrong with the textbook industry, please read RipOff 101, a study by CalPirg

At the other end of the ethical scale is Pirate Bay, which flagrantly violates global copyright laws, as described in this recent article in the NY Times:

The Pirate Bay, which is based in Sweden, presents a devilishly fearless challenge to American textbook publishers. It describes itself as an “anticopyright organization” and offers music, movies, television shows and software, as well as e-books like textbooks — not a single item of which, it boasts, has ever been removed at the request of a copyright owner.

As Randall Stross says in the article:

All forms of print publishing must contend with the digital transition, but college textbook publishing has a particularly nasty problem on its hands. College students may be the angriest group of captive customers to be found anywhere.

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