$1 textbooks an alluring, illegal option

Sites are offering prices for illegal book copies that bookstores can’t match

Che Topsy, the supervisor of St James’s bookstore, felt helpless in the face of the trend of “free e-textbooks." Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

Che Topsy, the supervisor of St James’s bookstore, felt helpless in the face of the trend of “free e-textbooks.”
Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

While Amazon’s new promotion is offering six months of unlimited free two-day shipping for Canadian post-secondary students, its target—university and college students—have found another good deal for their textbooks.

These days, students know where they can find free PDF versions of their textbooks on the internet. Some of the upcoming e-book websites like bookboon.com have pledged that they can provide legal free download of e-books and e-textbooks to the public.

However, this free e-textbook trend is still not overwhelmingly popular among students in Canada.

“It’s just because the sources are very limited and the PDF version is not good for marking,” said Ryan, a student in the culinary management—nutrition program and a seasoned free e-textbook user who prefers not to disclose his last name.

Nonetheless, recently a vast source of these books has come from China.

The most successful online shopping platform is from China, called taobao.com (meaning treasure hunt in Chinese). It has been revealed as having numerous online book shops that sell books at an unbelievably good price.

For example, the George Brown College (GBC) Chef School bible—the Professional Cooking 7th edition—sells for $145.88 in the GBC bookstore. On taobao.com, the PDF version only costs RMB 5 in Chinese currency which is equal to 89 cents Canada; with no tax and no shipping cost.

The bookshop will email the book directly to you once you’ve paid, which is far more efficient than free, two-day shipping time.

To understand the incredibly well-priced e-books, I acted as a customer and had a live chat with someone in customer service from one of their bookshops on Sep. 19.

I requested to buy the “Understanding Food Science and Technology” book which is not found in its store. The customer service representative said, “if you cannot find it in our bookshop, you just go to amazon.com; if they have the Kindle version, you come tell me and I will find that book for you. If they do not have it, then sorry, we can’t help.”

I took Ryan’s last term textbooks list as a target, five books, only one couldn’t be found on Taobao.com.

Heather Buffett, the copyright and open access librarian at GBC admitted that she has seen some of the GBC course books or manuals listed in some of the websites for free download, but she has never heard of Taobao.com.

However, Buffett stated clearly, “if I bought a book from the bookstore and I scanned it and then I put it online, I don’t have permission to do that from the publisher or from the author, or anyone that has any sort of controls over it; and then I either sell it or hand it out for free, that is illegal. The person who also purchases that copy or just downloads it, that is also (doing something) illegal.”

Buffett said that she had requested the websites to remove the unauthorized e-textbooks, but GBC has never sued anyone or any website as far as she knows.

“It takes time for lawsuit procedures. We consider the cost. For the students who use photocopies or illegal e-books, all we can do is ask them to not do it. We have no right to arrest anyone, or to seize anyone’s belongings,” said Buffett.

It’s the same situation for the GBC bookstore.

“We cant do anything. It’s the problem of the publishers or authors,” said Che Topsy, supervisor at the St James campus bookstore.

I asked Ryan and six of his classmates separately, “will you try Taobao.com?” Each of them firmly said “yes.”

“Why not? It just like everyone downloading music illegally on the internet.,” said Hilary Cowdrey. “If I can save a lot of money from my textbook expenses, I will do it.”

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$1 textbooks an alluring, illegal option