As if tuition and living expenses weren't enough financial stress for college students, the escalating prices of textbooks can be enough to keep students up at night worrying about how they're going to pay for their educations. Since 1978, the average price of textbooks has increased by 182%, which means the average 4-year college student faces around $5,000 in textbook purchases over the course of earning a degree. Add that in with the estimated $50,000 college education price tag, and it's easy to see why the high price of new textbooks has led many students to seek cheaper alternatives.
E-textbooks and international textbooks – those originally purchased overseas, also known as softcovers – are two such alternatives. But is buying and selling international textbooks and e-textbooks legal?
Recent legal proceedings have confused students, causing many to hesitate to buy or sell used textbooks for fear they might be breaking the law. Moreover, textbook publishers routinely mark international textbooks “NOT FOR RESALE,” thus implying that buying or selling international textbooks is illegal.
The outcomes of two recent Supreme Court cases have shed light on the matter, proving that in most cases it is perfectly legal to buy or sell used textbooks. The following serves as a guide you can use to determine what's legal (and what isn't) when it comes to buying and selling used textbooks.
The Supreme Decision
Enterprising students have found it's possible to purchase textbooks cheaper in foreign countries, then resell them at a profitable discount in the United States. In a landmark March 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court determined that selling used international textbooks does not violate copyright law (Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, 11-697). The court heard the case after a New York jury awarded textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons a $600,000 judgment against Supap Kirtsaeng, who had imported textbooks first purchased overseas to sell at a discount in the U.S. Textbook publishers typically sell nearly-identical textbooks abroad at far lower prices than they're sold for in the United States. John Wiley & Sons charged that by buying textbooks cheap in foreign countries and then selling them in the United States, Kirtsaeng had violated their copyright.
The Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling, however, and set the precedent that textbook publishers lose copyright protection after the “first sale” of a given book; and that textbook buyers have the right to buy and sell used textbooks regardless of where they are first purchased. What this means for you is that it is 100% legal to buy and sell used textbooks.
Save Up To 70% When You Buy International Textbooks
As noted, textbook publishers routinely sell international versions of textbooks that contain identical content to their U.S.-sold counterparts. These versions are sold at discounted prices, often going for up to 70% cheaper than the same textbooks sold in the U.S. When you search for textbooks on Direct Textbook, you can filter your results by international versions to get the best possible price on used textbooks.
Though international textbooks are made from lower-grade materials – they're often sold as paperbacks with lower-quality paper – they contain the same learning material you'd find in textbooks sold in the United States. Publishers mark international textbooks with ominous red lettering that reads “NOT FOR RESALE,” but the mark has no legal merit. By upholding the right of resale in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, the Supreme Court made it clear that buying and selling used textbooks is completely legal. The cost of a college education makes it clear that buying and selling used textbooks is completely frugal.
What About Digital E-Textbooks?
You know it's legal to buy and sell used print textbooks at discounted prices, but can you legally buy and sell used e-textbooks? The short answer is “no.” Just two weeks after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, the Court ruled against digital goods reseller ReDigi. In the case, Capitol Records charged that ReDigi's practice of letting users sell discounted digital copies of copyrighted material violates U.S. law.
Despite ReDigi's claim that its platform deletes sellers' digital files upon ownership transfer, the Supreme Court sided with Capitol Records and ruled that reselling digital goods does indeed violate copyright law. As such, buying and selling resold e-textbooks is illegal.
Other services continue to ignore U.S. copyright law unchecked. Websites such as N8Fan,
PDF Grab and BookFinder let users download e-textbooks, albeit illegally. Moreover, Reddit threads detail different methods for downloading e-textbooks – yet all of those methods are illegal.
As the publishing industry faces the same issues that have scalped the music industry of profits in recent years, the courts are likely to hear more cases involving illegal e-textbook downloads. And the punishments might be just as severe as they are for downloading MP3s. Federal copyright law calls for fines of up to $150,000 per infringed work, plus the potential for criminal charges. Moreover, real-life cases have resulted in incredible penalties for illegal MP3 downloaders. Consider the case of Joel Tenenbaum, a Boston University student who was fined $675,000 for 30 songs he illegally downloaded with popular peer-to-peer software. For its part, the Supreme Court has refused to hear Tenebaum's case.
The music and publishing industries want to make examples out of those who illegally download copyrighted materials. International P2P hosts can be nearly impossible to bring to U.S. courts; thus, it's the end users who are most severely punished. It begs the question: is it worth risking a six-figure penalty and possible criminal charges for an e-textbook you could legally download at the lowest possible price from Direct Textbook?
Why Used Print Textbooks Are The Best Investment
The Supreme Court's ruling in Capitol Records v. ReDigi means that when you buy an e-textbook, you cannot resell it. However, it does not preclude you from getting the best value out of your used textbook purchases. Digital copies have no tangible value; once you purchase an e-textbook, you cannot recoup any of your investment through resale. Print editions are another matter.
When you purchase a print edition of a textbook, you have the opportunity to recoup some or all of your investment. A quick search on Direct Textbook will reveal that used textbooks are often sold for 50% of the new textbook price. That means you can buy a used textbook
and later sell it at the same price price you purchased it. If you want to make the best investment in your textbooks rather than simply spend your money, used print textbooks are the way to go.
So, Am I Breaking The Law Or What?
If you're buying or selling a print textbook, either originally purchased in the U.S. or abroad, and whether it has a “NOT FOR RESALE” designation or not, your transaction is 100% legal. If you're buying or selling a resold e-textbook, you are breaking the law.
Simply put: If it's in print, it's legal. If you're the first-time buyer of an e-textbook, it's legal. All books listed on Direct Textbook are legal copies, including international softcover textbooks and e-textbooks.
Direct Textbook is dedicated to helping you find the best textbook deals from reputable sellers. As such, we closely monitor copyright law to help our customers make the best – and legal – buying and selling decisions. The two Supreme Court rulings presented here are interesting, given the wide-reaching impacts they have on U.S. copyright law. We'll continue to follow these topics in order to better guide you when buying and selling used textbooks.