USF student shows his peers how to download textbooks online for free

08/19/13 Janelle Irwin
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School starts for USF students next week, but the rush to get ready has already started. Monday, as students filed in and out of the Tampa campus bookstore, Tristan Lear handed out fliers explaining his Textbook Liberation Project. Lear helps other students locate an online source for their books and shows them how to download it – all for free.

“I hit lucky streaks sometimes where I’m able to get someone all of there books and sometimes I can find one or none of their books. But, the average introductory test costs over $200. So, even just that alone would be great.”

The first person to approach Lear’s impromptu booth was skeptical. ‘What’s the catch?’ he asked as he nodded toward a yellow umbrella announcing free textbooks. Another student, Moses Rivera, approached and was more enthusiastic.

“Free text books, you know, that’s pretty awesome. I get to look online and not have to pay for anything which is great and then I’d just be able to use it on my laptop without – as long as it’s a .pdf file – without having to worry about paper or carrying a huge textbook back and forth.”

Rivera said he’s going to see what he can find on the list of websites provided by the Textbook Liberation Project.

“Actually, I just did my textbook – I was about to order them online just now and the total came out to $266 with all the books that I need. So, if I can get some of these off that will save me a good chunk of change – probably like, 50-100 bucks.”

Even if students already purchased their textbooks, finding them online could still save some money. The USF bookstore, run by Barnes and Noble, will refund books for one week after they’re purchased. Lear is encouraging students he helps find digital copies of textbooks to tell their friends. Lear said the project is all part of a broader goal to drive down the cost of textbooks.

“I found a 2009 article in the USF Oracle saying that USF professors should be contributing to the open textbook database. That’s from 2009 and people have known that this is a racket for a long time now. That’s why I want to escalate a little bit. If we can take down the publishing industry the same way that file sharing took down the recording industry, that’d be a great, I think, catalyst for the change that we need to make more popular the open textbook movement.”

Lear isn’t concerned about getting in trouble despite some possible legal issues associated with unauthorized file sharing.

“All I’m doing is helping people find the location of these books online that have already been shared by other people. So, I’m not copying anything. I’m distributing anything. I’m just showing them a website that has the book that they need.”

The onus then falls on the person downloading the content.

“But it’s all very safe. Everyone that I know that knows how to do this does this and doesn’t worry about it. It’s just going to a website and downloading a pdf. I’ve never heard of anyone ever getting in trouble for that.”

The difference, Lear said, between downloading a textbook and, say, a movie or CD is in how it’s done. According to Lear, downloading CDs and movies requires torrenting software like u torrent or tixati – downloading books doesn’t.

“To participate in file sharing software, you have to upload content as well and that’s how sometimes they’ll send you a DMCA notice in the mail saying, ‘you’ve been sharing unauthorized content.’ This doesn’t involve having to do any of that, this is just simply downloading a file from a website.”

The media and public affairs manager for USF, Lara Wade, said there was some concern that students were being encouraged to obtain textbooks illegally. She pointed to a university-run program called the Textbook Affordability Project which helps students access affordable materials, including electronic copies of course material and textbooks.

According to the Textbook Liberation Project’s Lear, the student center director and an employee from the bookstore told him he needed a permit to distribute material to students. He asked for a permit to return on Friday, but was told he may not qualify because of a no-compete contract between the school and Barnes and Noble.

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I checked out TAP a while back and it seemed like an empty gesture on the part of the University. It said basically that the library should acquire more DRM crippled ebooks and offers a way to file a request that the library obtain one. I filed such a request for my psych research methods text and the library said they couldn't because of the publisher. For the few DRM crippled books you can obtain through the library, you can DeDRM them using software called DeDRM. I included links to that on my handout.

Also, it seems the TAP violates the same no-compete contract that I violated.