Has the Giant Slayer Killed More?


Kirtsaeng is a name that textbook publishers hate! He is just a student who found an innovative way to pay for his education. In the path he chose he came up against some giants. He slew the biggest one in 2012 and I thought it was worth looking at what has happened since then. 


Many of you have probably not heard his name. Kirtsaeng was a student originally from Thailand who came to the USA to study. His need to find a source of income to support his education made him into an entrepreneur. He set up a pipeline of buying US college textbooks in Thailand (cheaper versions), importing them through his relatives and friends and reselling them on eBay. One publisher who was affected by this (Wiley) sued him on the grounds of copyright infringement. The case wound up in the US Supreme Court. In short Kirtsaeng's right to resell the territorially restricted books was upheld. Kirtseang the giant killer was born.


To many the giant he has slain is the villainous publisher or rather the lot of them. The argument in the West is that publishers overcharge US College textbooks and sell them cheaper in other countries. US students too have a right to buy the cheaper versions, etc. etc. But to me there is another giant that has inadvertently been affected - the giant body of students that study in developing countries. In 2012 there were many voices rejoicing in the US while this giant was dying in his sleep. I said that this giant was sleeping because then students in developing worlds were oblivious to the loss they were to experience when US textbooks would no longer be available in cheaper editions. In 2017, the death continues as publishers scramble to reinvent themselves.


Textbook publishing has always been a complex business. Authors want better royalties but don't want to do much with the content, students want better quality at cheaper prices and the world thinks "freely available" is synonymous with "available for free". Students in developing countries were hit with a double whammy and that is why I said the giant was dying in his sleep. While the hit from vanishing (quality) textbooks continues, the lack of authorship (a problem I foretold in 2012) remains unchanged. A publisher is finding it even more expensive to continue to develop textbooks in a fast diminishing market (demand). Couple this with technology intervening and substituted content (such as video or other free resources) taking centre stage, the problem of textbook based education is only getting bigger. 


Textbook publishing has been a non-paying labour of love from the author's point of view. Most home grown (Indian) publishers don't have a royalty model linked to sales. Textbook creators (authors or plagiarists) are paid a lump-sum when the manuscript is delivered. From that point on it is the publisher that makes the money (or loses it). It's true that publishers have the most to lose with any product they publish. But is the risk real with a student body as large as India? The answer may lie in an open dialog with the stakeholders, but I believe this (dialog) has been surpassed by circumstances.


The Delhi University Photocopying case has returned a verdict that has far reaching consequences. The case has brought cheer to some quarters and despair in others. What no one has really internalised is that the effect of this judgment is being felt across the globe. There are countries watching the outcome, as this will, in one way or another, impact global thinking on publishing textbooks. The judgment has ensured that a single person with the power to interpret law has interpreted in a way that goes against the natural premise that “no one will unfairly profit from the labour of another”. This battle isn’t over and the true war hasn’t yet begun.


The Delhi Photocopying Case has some staggering numbers quoted and I am not sure even I (as a publisher) understand them. The figure quoted is Rs. 3.5 lakhs for purchase of textbooks for a BA (honours) course in Delhi University (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Cost-scarcity-of-textbooks-drives-business/articleshow/19313074.cms). The argument for photocopying is boosted by the same article stating the photocopied version (customised course pack created by the photocopy shop) sells for around Rs. 7000. I am truly astounded at the argument but even if it was to be taken at face value here are some questions that behove an answer.


Did DU recommend the wrong set of books?Did publishers publish the wrong type of books? Are they brain dead for putting a book out of print when clearly students want them?Should we believe that the photocopy shop is more aware of the course requirements than DU and the publishers put together are?


I am all for inexpensive (read cheap) textbooks but we need to get our collective act together. I can't believe publishers and a prestigious university got this wrong. There are other factors such as fluctuating costs of paper and taxes that skew the costing process. The answer lies elsewhere. To talk about expenses incurred by students on every other activity other than textbooks would be like diving into a sea of box jellyfish. I am sure to be mauled no matter how deep I dive or how quickly I get out of the pool. And honestly this would be a poor defence to begin with.


So what has happened in the 5 years since the Kirtsaeng case?


Here are some things I know and there are others I am sure


Textbook sales in the US decline – this was estimated to be a US$10 billion a year market but it has declined dramatically. Today the best estimate pegs this at US$ 8 billion. No Kirtseang isn’t directly responsible for this but perhaps at another time I will investigate the links between the two situations. Book rentals, digital resources, YouTube etc are the new ways in which students are learning and or passing courses. This is a clear trend and no one can stop this juggernaut.


EduTech becomes the new buzzword (again) – look around you and education technology is everywhere. Be it your phone, your tablet or laptop/desktop, education driven through technology is where you want it, when you want it and how you want it.


Investment in education continues to grow – believe it or not, tech companies are bullish about education and edutech startups. This reality co-exists with another – eduTech has the highest burn rate of startups too. Many companies with close to Unicorn evaluations are today defunct or about to be.


Print holds steady and in some cases it grows – Textbooks in particular are still consumed in print and even though there are many digital add-ons. There are studies that show humans absorb learning content better on paper.


So where does this leave our hero? I find it fascinating that everywhere I look I see Kirtsaeng’s shadow lurking. His single act set into motion so many parallel actions that it is impossible to ignore his contribution. It has made publishing stand up and notice that a single act can change the world. In many ways I believe the Delhi University Photocopying case and the Georgia Tech University case are linked to Kirtseang. The world has had to pause and look again at how copyright is being viewed.


But for me, Thank God it’s Friday…

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© 2020 Vivek Mehra