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Coming to campus: E-books with expiration dates

Bookstores at Princeton, University of Utah and others are offering bargain textbook downloads that expire after five months.

When students at Princeton University, the University of Utah and eight other colleges start combing their school bookstore shelves for fall semester textbooks, they'll find a new alternative to the hard-covered tomes they're used to buying.

Alongside the new and used versions of Dante's "Inferno" and "Essentials of Psychology" will be little cards offering 33 percent off if students decide to download a digital version of a text instead of buying a hard copy.

That's not a bad deal for a cash-strapped student facing book bills in the hundreds of dollars. But there are trade-offs. The new digital textbook program imposes strict guidelines on how the books can be used, including locking the downloaded books to a single computer and setting a five-month expiration date, after which the book can't be read.

News.context

What's new:
Bookstores at Princeton University, the University of Utah and eight other colleges are offering students bargain textbook downloads that expire after five months.

Bottom line:
The new program is among the most far-reaching moves toward digital publishing made in the academic environment to date, and could prove to be a significant test of the kinds of trade-offs students are willing to make in order to access the conveniences of digital texts.

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Bookstore managers at the 10 schools participating in the trial program say they expect some students to be put off by the restrictions, but say they are eager to provide a digital choice to students who are increasingly computer-centered--and help them save money in the process.

"We don't know yet how people will react," said Virginia France, the marketing director at the Princeton University Store. "It is something that will evolve over time. But it is the first program like it that involves the stores, so naturally we think that's a good idea."

The new program is among the most far-reaching moves toward digital publishing made in the academic environment to date, and could prove to be a significant test of the kinds of trade-offs students are willing to make in order to access the conveniences of digital texts.

Indeed, the history of electronic books has shown that readers have found little to love, even when prices are substantially lower. Critics say that most consumers aren't yet willing to read book-length segments of text online and that e-book devices remain too expensive for the mass market.

E-books as a whole remain an infinitesimal part of the overall publishing market, with just $3.2 million in sales logged by retailers in the third quarter of 2004, the last period for which figures are available, according to the International Digital Publishing Forum.

As with music and movies, part of the issue has been copy protection. Books are not as widely swapped online as are songs and Hollywood films, but it is possible to find hundreds or thousands of titles available for download in file-trading networks or Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, channels.

Fear of unrestricted copying has prompted publishers to release their books in formats that are unfamiliar to much of the public, or that hold copying restrictions, such as Adobe's Acrobat or Microsoft's Reader format.

Not an academic question
The textbook publishing world has been moving toward digital sales for several years. For the most part, however, this has come in the form of direct sales to students from the publishers themselves, and has accounted for a small portion of overall sales.

The trial project starting this semester is the first to include multiple publishers and one of the largest textbook wholesalers in the country, MBS Textbook Exchange. The publishers include McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Houghton Mifflin, John Wiley & Sons, Thomson Learning and Sage Publications.

MBS Textbook Exchange, which provides inventory and accounting services as well as wholesale book distribution, developed the card system with input from the publishers and a handful of bookstores, hoping that it and its customers could avoid being cut out of the sales process as digital sales grew.

"The real question is how long before publishers stop printing on paper."
--Fred von Lohmann, attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation

"Everyone knew there was a need for digital textbooks that's been growing for the last two years or so," said Jeff Cohen, the advertising and promotions manager at MBS Textbook Exchange. "The traditional channel that students use to buy books has been the bookstore, and keeping them in the mix is important, for the bookstores and for us."

Under the program, students will have a choice between new and used books for a class, or can pick up the card offering the 33 percent discount. The initially generic card will be associated with a specific book at checkout, and the student can download the book in Adobe's Acrobat form to a single computer.

In the trial phase, an average of 30 books at each store will be available in digital form, chosen based on how widely the books are used and on whether the publishers own the digital rights to the texts. More books will be added later, Cohen said.

The digital form does have some advantages. The downloaded books can be searched by keyword and read out loud by the Adobe software, as well as highlighted and bookmarked.

They will expire after 150 days. But the publisher can change the setting if, for example, a text will be used over several semesters. Some restrictions on printing also apply, including a ban on printing the entire text at once.

Those usage rules, the product of negotiations with the big publishers, may change once the program is expanded to a larger audience, Cohen said. But for now, the restrictions mean that students won't be able to sell their books back to the bookstore, a traditional money-saving activity at the end of classes.

"This does have a life that's different," Cohen said. "It is what it is. It's getting the value up front."

Bookstore managers at the University of Utah and Princeton said that the program is being launched largely without consulting faculty or students on campus beforehand. At Utah, where the cards will be available beginning Tuesday, students have mixed reactions.

"It does sound like a cool idea," said Utah sophomore Jonathan Hayes. "For me, it would depend on the class and subject. If it was one that I was constantly reading, I'd buy the book. If it was one where I read just a couple chapters every week, but it was necessary, then I would consider it."

Digital liberties activists look at the program with some skepticism, arguing that it could be a way for publishers to undermine the thriving used textbook market.

"As long as people have the choice (of printed books), it's not such a dangerous move," said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has been critical of efforts to copy-protect academic works. "The real question is how long before publishers stop printing on paper. There is no doubt that publishers would like to move to a world where there is no used market for textbooks."

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.