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Publishers loosen rules on e-textbooks

Following concern about five-month expiration dates, restrictions in digital-textbook experiment are lifted.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
2 min read
A group of major textbook publishers has agreed to loosen restrictions in an electronic-textbook experiment beginning this month at Princeton University and other schools, following some criticism of expiration dates.

The pilot project, which will see textbooks sold in downloadable form at 10 university bookstores this fall, went into operation earlier this week. Under the initial version of the program, the downloads were to be sold for 33 percent off the cost of a new, printed copy, but would only be usable for about five months.

On Friday, MBS Textbook Exchange--the textbook wholesaler that is organizing the program--said publishers had agreed to extend the expiration dates for the digital textbooks. The downloads will now last from 12 months to an unlimited time, depending on the publisher.

"All of us have always been committed to putting together a program that delivers a cost savings to the student through the traditional channel, which is the bookstore," MBS Direct Chief Executive Officer Dennis Flanagan, who is heading the project, said in a statement. "Adapting to student recommendations is what this test is all about."

The experiment, which is already ongoing at several schools including the University of Utah, is one of the most ambitious efforts offering students digital versions of textbooks instead of the heavy printed copies they're used to.

A handful of textbook publishers already offer downloadable versions of their works through their own Web sites or through partners. But the programs have been only lightly used--in part because most students tend to buy their books all at once either online or in the campus bookstore, rather than figuring out which publisher is responsible for which texts.

The new program will see little cards produced by MBS sold on the shelves next to used and new copies of textbooks, offering students the discount if they buy online instead. The generic cards--similar to phone cards--are associated with a specific book at the bookstore's check-out desk, and the student downloads the book later.

Formatted and copy-protected using Adobe technology, the books can be searched by keyword and read out loud by the software. But antipiracy protections will prevent them from being sold back to the bookstore or to other students once a class is finished.

MBS also said Friday that publishers have agreed to loosen restrictions on how much of a book could be printed and how often. That too will vary by publisher.

The digital books will be initially available at the University of Oregon, the University of Utah, Portland Community College, Bowling Green State University, Princeton University, Georgetown College, California State University-Fullerton, Morehead State University, and at privately owned stores serving West Virginia University and Louisiana State University.