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Davis, California

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Pirating your way to an A

A student nonchalantly walks into a bookstore, finds the textbook they need and flips it over to the back cover. The price tag reads into the 200-dollar range. The student coyly scans the aisle to make sure no employees or security cameras are watching, then slips the volume under their coat and walks out. Another student searches online, finds the same textbook in its entirety, and downloads it in the form of an illegally posted .pdf. Both have committed the same crime, but due to the highly accessible, nonphysical, anonymous world of the internet, one is considered a thief — the other, someone who has found a clever loophole in the system.

“I’ve downloaded both the Communication 3 and Economics 115 textbooks,” said an anonymous economics major. “I don’t have a problem with it. It’s not stealing. [Textbooks] are expensive and I’m broke.”

Downloading textbooks is a serious offense, one that is punishable by both copyright law and UC Davis.

“Information relating to a particular [person/IP address downloading copyrighted material] may be referred to campus authorities, including but not limited to Student Judicial Affairs, Network Operations Center, Chief Compliance Officer, Campus Counsel or departmental network and human resources staff, for review relating to campus policies,” according to the UC Davis Policy and Procedure Manual.

Still, when a significant amount of money is on the line, there is an allure to having textbooks with just one click.

“I would do it again. It was just there, and I thought, ‘why not save $212?’” an anonymous engineering major said.

With textbook and tuition prices climbing ever higher, some are willing to think beyond legal, legitimate options in order to prevent economic strain.

“My parents both had to take lower-paying jobs recently and I’m going abroad; so I’m paying a lot for that. I was talking to my dad about textbooks, and he said that we’re tight on money … I just told him that I was going to find another way,” the economics major said.

For those who buy textbooks with their own money, the drive to find a free method is, in the minds of students interviewed, less a matter of malice and one of desperation.

“It is stealing … and my teacher wrote the book, so I feel bad. The thing is, my parents aren’t helping me with buying textbooks, and I’m tight on cash right now. I’ve gone through over $2,000 over the last two quarters with everything [for college]. I try to find my books online because they are ridiculously expensive otherwise. I gotta do what I gotta do to save enough money as possible,” a second anonymous economics major said.

The methodology behind obtaining the textbooks online is simple: find the book in the form of a .pdf and save it. Most of the time, using search engines with the correct keywords such as the author’s name and title of the book is all it takes for the desired link to appear.

For some books, searching the web directly doesn’t always yield results. In the event of this type of case, students rely on friends, or friends of friends, to post links to a textbook’s .pdf on social media outlets, where they are then shared.

“I downloaded both the [Math] 21 series textbook and the solutions manual. For the textbook, someone posted a link onto [a Davis-affiliated] Facebook page, and I just clicked it, got the .pdf, and saved it onto my desktop for future access,” the engineering major said. “The solutions manual took a little work. I got it through Dropbox, which is a file-sharing program.”

A major point of contention for many students stems from required texts not being used, or used enough, in class. While most classes utilize, or at least reference the required textbooks in some capacity, some students buy books that end up sitting on a shelf all quarter.

“A lot of the time we have to buy all these books, and then we never use them. It’s ridiculous. I spent $50 on a book last quarter that I never touched,” the first economics major said. “That’s what really pushed me [to start looking for my books online].”

Another impetus for turning to illegal activity was a course’s subject matter in relation to an individual’s major.

“I would be willing to cash out more for books that are required for my major; paying a ton for books that only satisfy GEs doesn’t make sense,” the second economics major said. “Why would I spend $150 for an Intro to Human Evolutionary Biology textbook when I’m an economics major?”

While some see buying books that don’t fall directly into a major’s criteria as unnecessary, others see value in accruing knowledge for the sake of personal growth.

“I would hope that anyone with intellectual curiosity, anyone who would want to evolve knowledge, would want to buy their textbooks,” said Professor Bella Merlin, Drama 10 teacher and writer of the internationally acclaimed textbook, The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. “It’s a matter of respecting that it could be them, that they could be the next person to have a breakthrough and write a textbook.”

Despite the reasoning of all three students, more affordable, legal alternatives than theft do exist for even the most cash-strapped student. Jason Lorgan, director of UC Davis Stores, and Kato Meley, assistant director of course materials of UC Davis Stores, explained the MU Bookstore’s extensive rental program.

The Bookstore’s register system recognizes which titles are available to be rented, and the cashier then presents the buyer with an option to buy or rent. At the end of the quarter, students must bring the book to one of the buyback programs put on by the University around campus to turn it in.

“Around 15,000 students use the rental program,” Lorgan said. “At this point, about 70 percent of our titles are available for renting. Students are paying below the university’s cost, and can save up to 71 percent off the price of a new book by renting. The only things not available to rent are custom editions, online single-user codes, and workbooks with torn out pages — that’s the 30 percent that doesn’t have a resale value.”

Renting is only one aspect of the bookstore’s effort to provide lower-priced options. They also provide an expansive used-book sales system, real-time price comparisons of other vendors at the bookstore website, loose leaf and e-books.

“We understand the economy. We’re doing what’s right for the students. We’re not a traditional business. Our mission is not to make money off of selling books. It’s to provide students with options and the lowest possible cost to get through college,” Lorgan said.

Professor Merlin said that while she periodically receives a small amount in royalties for the success of The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit, that the monetary impact associated with illegal downloads is not the biggest part of her problem with the practice.

“[Stealing is] a really bad habit to develop as a young human being … It’s not the way the game should be played. I’m not so worried about the money. The moral aspect is the biggest thing,” Merlin said.

As for the future of the trend, all three students did not express concern for being caught or reprimanded for their actions.

Logan, however, feels a pushback is inevitable.

“This is a growing trend, and there is no question that we will see more and more enforcement as time goes on,” Logan said. “It’s a fairly new thing still, so we haven’t seen the publishing companies react to this quite yet. But because we know that it is starting to become more and more common, it’s only a matter of time.”

HANNAH KRAMER can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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