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How DRM can help education

DRM and electronic books could help lower college educational expenses while at the same time improving the health of students.

DRM and electronic books could help lower college educational expenses while at the same time improving the health of students.

Here's why: the economics of textbook publishing are broken. There's a reason that an introductory biology textbook costs $125 new, and it's not because it's printed on high-quality paper using a special 12-color press. It's because when the student is done with the book, he or she sells it back to the campus bookstore, or to another student. The publisher is thus deprived of recurring revenue on the title. So it raises book prices, heaping the revenue it would get from multiple students over multiple years onto one unlucky soul. But the more expensive books get, the more likely students are to recycle them. It's a death spiral of cost.

Peter's new Sony PRS-505 Reader.
Peter's new Sony PRS-505 Reader. Peter N. Glaskowsky

This is how digital rights and e-books can help: what if, instead of selling paper books to students, publishers sold digital copies? Already some textbooks are available online or in downloads, but students need easier access to information than a standard 7-pound, battery-limited laptop can provide. An instant-on electronic book is just the ticket. The technology is here, or nearly so. If the textbook content was licensed to the user and not resellable, then the publisher could sell it to each individual who needed it. There'd be no secondary market and the publishers would not have to inflate their prices to make up for that.

And the health benefits? It's a lot better for your back if you're just carrying one 3-pound e-book instead of a half-dozen 8-pound printed texts.

Now, there are dozens of ways publishers could screw this up, mostly by overpricing their content, which would encourage hacking of the DRM, which would in response lead to onerous copy protection that could make e-books unworkable. But if--and it's a big if--publishers get on board and start selling licenses to their texts instead of the books themselves, everyone (except bookstores) could benefit. I would be surprised if e-book manufacturers weren't pushing on this angle right now. See the hands-on hardware and software reviews of Sony's new PRS-505 electronic book.

See also Textbookflix (book rental) and CafeScribe (downloadable texts, but limited selection).