Geekman vs. the Publishers: A Textbook Torrent

After I began to use my first adaptive computer some 25 years ago, I started talking to anyone who would listen about producing digital textbooks. I knew those books existed as digital files sometime in the production process. It was an obvious solution to the information accessibility barriers that limited blind readers. Publishers and university booksellers told me it would never work because formatting code would be so hard to strip out of the digital files. And more to the point, easily copied digital books could jeopardize the publishers’ business model. I even heard protests from a surprising quarter — the principal producer of recorded texts for blind students feared the promise of digital books might limit the flow of donors and volunteer readers who fueled its philanthropic reading service.

Then came the Internet and its attendant disruptive technologies. All kinds of digital texts are accessible now in an ever-proliferating array of portals and platforms. This transformation isn’t driven by publisher innovation, philanthropy, or the needs of blind readers. It’s driven by criminal behavior, according to today’s prevailing copyright dogma. Nonetheless, blind readers reap a benefit.

Marketplace reported today on the latest copyright scourge:

Not paying a lot for books is the primary motivation behind Textbook Torrent. More than 80,000 users have signed up to download scanned copies of text books, often breaking copyright laws. A computer programmer who goes by the name “Geekman” launched the site last year.

Geekman: I’m not sure I’d say I’m the Robin Hood, but I know I’m operating in a legal gray area here, and I’m certainly appreciative of the fact that not everybody’s going to agree with what we’re doing.

Particularly, the Association of American Publishers, whose members print over 85 percent of all college textbooks sold. They’ve sent take-down notices threatening legal action to Textbook Torrent and dozens of other file-sharing sites. Ed McCoyd is director of digital policy. He says he doesn’t think expensive textbook prices are encouraging illegal downloads.

Ed McCoyd: I think it’s just part of people liking to get things for free. I don’t see this as some outcropping of the cost of books.

But economics professor James V. Koch of Old Dominion University says the textbook market is broken. There’s little competition and students often have no choice but to spend top dollar on required books. He wants to see schools develop alternatives like textbook rental systems. But that’s not likely to happen. Listen/read more.

On a related note, Alex de Jong wrote recently about vaporware, assistive technology designed intentionally for blind users that never makes it to market:

Why must the product design of such devices be so…erm…institutional? Every once in a while, a bright young thing at IDEO, or indeed, Samsung, decides to graduate on a “product for the blind”. And so we have a heap of vaporware products that have nice designs, but that will never get produced. Somehow, the connection with manufacturers of assistive products is just not there. This may also be because those concept products invariably address a design problem that -for most blind people – doesn’t exist, or is not much of an issue. A case in point is the appearance, every now and then, of a “cane replacement product”. I guess the impetus for the designer is the assumption that most blind people would rather not use a cane. And so the quest is to design a product that will perform the functions of a cane, but without looking like a cane. Or, a product will seek to “upgrade” a cane with electronics, like sonar detection of obstacles and GPS. Read more.

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