Copyright concerns

Ladies and gentlemen, course packets are officially obsolete.


You know what I’m talking about – those cute spiral-bound collections of selections from textbooks that you get at Smart Copy or Clean Copy. Course packets are supposed to save students money on textbooks because they combine excerpts from expensive textbooks and other copyrighted sources. They can be had for around $20 or $30 instead of the $200 or $300 you’d pay for all the textbooks the articles come from.


It recently came to the administration’s attention that some professors were actually violating copyrights by copying certain texts and articles into packets without copyright clearance. Or at least that was the suspicion. Since such deviant behavior could easily result in a lawsuit, recent e-mails circulated through a variety of PSU administrative listservs admonishing faculty to observe the PSU copyright policy. (To view PSU’s copyrighted materials use policy visit


The presence of the e-mail itself implicitly acknowledges a temptation to use university copying and printing resources to help students at the expense of the copyright holders. I can’t say I’ve experienced that temptation myself.


As a peer mentor for University Studies, I don’t do a whole lot of document production, but I have talked to numerous faculty members here at PSU who have opinions on the subject. Most notable among them is a now-retired English professor who taught at PSU for over 20 years. He often decried the expense of textbooks and cited numerous instances where he knowingly violated copyright laws in order to provide his students with the necessary reading materials. He did this, he said, for students who were not financially privileged enough to be able to buy a collection of poetry anthologies just to pass the class, and also to fly in the face of what he thought were unfair business practices on the part of the textbook publishers.


While using copyrighted material for distribution in course packets is illegal without permission from the publisher, most printers strive to ensure copyright protection. The recent flurry of concern over copyright violation in course packets has influenced local printers to adhere to the law. Course packets are now being sold for upwards of $100.


But it’s worth it, because we’re paying for the feeling of moral superiority, right?


As a student in the business program, I have some thoughts on this. In every business class I have ever taken here at PSU, there is a required textbook. Typically it is hardback, between 300 and 500 pages in length, and over $100 new or used.


Now, if these were collections of great works of literature that I would keep on my shelves for years to come, I would have no problem ponying up that kind of cash. But typically they are the unnecessarily glossy products of business theoreticians’ mental masturbation, common sense dressed up in fancy terminology that nobody in the actual business world actually uses. Naturally, the publishers change a few paragraphs every year in order to publish a “new” edition that not only adds almost nothing in the way of genuinely new or actually substantive material, but has the cute little ancillary benefit of rendering the “old” edition obsolete and therefore valueless.


Let’s think about some alternatives to course packets. Apart from the fact that a textbook typically won’t disintegrate if you spill coffee on it, textbooks and course packets are essentially indistinguishable. I know of a faculty member in University Studies who goes to extreme lengths to find free online readings for her students, precisely in order to save them money. The added benefit is that online articles and readings are available 24/7 from any computer with an internet connection, and you can print them out, which is less expensive in terms of resources than copying them out of a book.


Of course, the problem of textbook prices is not a new development. We have harped on the questionable business practices of the big textbook publishers here in the Vanguard before, frequently dealing with the student advocacy group OSPIRG and its attempts to raise awareness about the fact that, for most of us, a “required text” listed on the syllabus is an invitation to take a trip to the PSU Bookstore, bend over and grab our ankles.


OSPIRG has recently made great strides in proving their point, sending research to the state government that was confirmed by the government’s own independent research. I think it’s safe to say we’re all hoping that their continued efforts in this area will bring about real change for us as students, including, dare we hope, relief at the bookstore counter.


As an aside, I want to make it clear that the PSU Bookstore itself has never been the problem. The problem has always been with the publishers, not the retailers.


My advice? Forget the course packets. Find the articles on your own or, if you must, buy the books – but buy them used.


Be morally responsible. Don’t ask your professor to violate copyright laws for you. Violate them on your own.