As new and returning students rushed to the USF Bookstore to purchase textbooks in the last week before the fall semester started, a group that called itself the Textbook Liberation Project set up a table outside of the Barnes & Noble on campus to help students find “free textbooks.”
“We called our two days of action ‘Antagonize the Cartels’ because that’s really what the textbook publishing industry is,” Tristan Lear, a junior majoring in women’s and gender studies and the creator of the project, said. “There isn’t really a choice to buy or not buy their textbooks and that’s why I call them cartels.”
TLIB tabled outside of the bookstore last Monday and Friday hoping to reach students who were going to the bookstore to purchase their textbooks.
The group, consisting mostly of Lear and friends he met through Occupy Tampa, had only a few laptops and a smartphone for Wi-Fi, but managed to find links to PDF versions of many students’ textbooks online for free, which they would write down on a notecard and give to students.
“Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, sharing a link on a website makes you partially responsible for the copyright infringement, even if you’re not hosting it,” Lear said. “What I’m doing involves sharing links personally in the real world or teaching people how to find them. If that were to be ruled as copyright violation that would be ridiculous case law because it would imply that simply talking about file sharing is against the law.”
The group decorated their table with about a dozen signs that read “FREE TEXTBOOKS” and shouted slogans such as “Who doesn’t like free textbooks?” and “Fatter wallets right here!” to passersby.
“They can’t really be free,” one student said to another as they walked by. “There’s got to be a catch.”
“People always think everything has a monetary cost to it,” Nathan Schwartz, a former USF student and volunteer with TLIB, said. “The funny thing is, there really is no cost to this unless you count us sending you emails about more info on free books.”
Lear said while he hoped to save students money on their books, there was also a political motive driving the project.
“The Internet and these alternative models of information building can facilitate the relationship between students and authors and professors way more efficiently than the publishing companies,” Lear said. “It’s almost like a scam. Calculus hasn’t changed in almost a thousand years, yet every 3.5 years they put out a new edition of the textbook and charge you about 20 percent more.”
Lear said he believes open-source, affordable textbooks should be what the textbook publishing industry starts moving toward.
“They can be modified and improved upon by any professors who want to,” Lear said. “I know the University of Illinois just got a grant from the Department of Education to make open source text for use by teachers all over the country. Many teachers don’t even know about open source textbooks because no one has tried to market it to them and it’s a shame.”
When Lear first came to campus, he was asked to disassemble his table and leave, after some USF officials cited a potential conflict of his presence with the university’s exclusivity contract with Barnes & Noble College.
University officials later informed Lear that there was no conflict, but instead what he needed was the proper permission to table outside the Marshall Student Center.
Lear and volunteers from the project returned Friday, this time with a permit, and assisted dozens of students with information on where to find their books for free.
When the crowds around the table became too large for him to handle on his own, volunteers began asking students to email the group with their textbook requests and promised to get back to them on what they could find.
A bookstore employee, who requested not to be identified by name, stopped by the table to thank Lear for helping him find his textbooks for free this semester.
Nick Fagnoni, manager of the bookstore, said the bookstore attempts to keep costs minimal for students.
“I think we provide students with the lowest priced textbooks while fulfilling our contractual obligations with the university,” Fagnoni said. “But obviously (TLIB volunteers) are well within their rights to hand out information and I can’t stop them from doing that.”
Eneida Baldera, a freshman majoring in business, who’s about to begin her first semester at USF, said she can’t imagine how students afford textbooks on top of tuition costs.
“They tell you to compare prices and shop around, but when it’s a textbook that cost over $100, finding it at a $10 discount doesn’t help much,” Baldera said.
Baldera approached TLIB’s table because she said even after comparison-shopping, she still couldn’t afford to buy all of her textbooks.
“My algebra teacher already posted an assignment on Blackboard and I can’t even afford to buy the textbook, much less the clicker,” Baldera said. “I guess that means I’m already starting out at a disadvantage.”12