May 30, 2024

DRM Textbooks Offered to Princeton Students

There’s a story going around the blogosphere that Princeton is experimenting with DRMed e-textbooks. Here’s an example:

Princeton University, intellectual home of Edward Felten and Alex Halderman, has evidently begun to experiment with DRM’d textbooks. According to this post, there are quite a few digital restrictions being managed:

  • Textbook is locked to the computer where you downloaded it from;
  • Copying and burning to CD is prohibited;
  • Printing is limited to small passages;
  • Unless otherwise stated, textbook activation expires after 5 months (*gasp*);
  • Activated textbooks are not returnable;
  • Buyback is not possible.

There an official press release from the publishers for download here.

Several people have written, asking for my opinion on this.

First, a correction. As far as I can tell, Princeton University has no part in this experiment. The Princeton University Store, a bookstore that is located on the edge of the campus but is not affiliated with the University, will be the entity offering DRMed textbooks. The DRM company’s press release tries to leave the impression that Princeton University itself is involved, but this appears to be incorrect.

In any case, I don’t see a reason to object to the U-Store offering these e-books, as long as students are informed about the DRM limitations and can still get the dead-tree version instead. It’s hard to see the value proposition for students in the DRMed version, unless the price is very low. It appears the price will be about two-thirds of the new-book price, which is obviously a bad deal. Our students are smart enough to know which version to buy – and the faculty will be happy to advise them if they’re not sure.

I don’t object to other people wasting their money developing products that consumers won’t want. People waste their money on foolish schemes every day. I wish for their sake that they would be smarter. But why should I object to this product or try to stop it? A product this weak will die on its own.

The problem with DRM is not that bad products can be offered, but that public policy sometimes protects bad products by thwarting the free market and the free flow of ideas. The market will kill DRM, if the market is allowed to operate.

UPDATE (August 12): The DRM vendor announced yesterday that usage restrictions will be eased somewhat. The expiration time has been extended to at least twelve months (longer for some publishers), and restrictions on printing have been loosened in some cases.


  1. I’ve been following the DRM-Digital textbook topic closely and have compiled a list of articles on it at i would appreciate any feedback. i’ve been closely associated with custom textbook publishing for many years and have noticed alot of misinformation on the digital “improvements”.

  2. […] Need Help? Ask A Librarian Find Information Library Services About the Library Site Map |  Site Index |  Site Search Home > Library News and Subject Blogs > Issues in Scholarly Communication > News Details   Edward Felten on the Digital Textbook Pilot On Freedom to Tinker, Edward Felten, Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton, weighs in on the digital textbook pilot.  An excerpt: As far as I can tell, Princeton University has no part in this experiment. The Princeton University Store, a bookstore that is located on the edge of the campus but is not affiliated with the University, will be the entity offering DRMed textbooks. …In any case, I don’t see a reason to object to the U-Store offering these e-books, as long as students are informed about the DRM limitations and can still get the dead-tree version instead. It’s hard to see the value proposition for students in the DRMed version, unless the price is very low. Link Blog: Issues in Scholarly Communication •  Category: In the News Posted: 08/9/05 at 9:23 AM by William  •  Permanent Link function erase() { document.searchform.searchform.value = “” } Archives Search […]

  3. Looks like the Princeton University bookstore and universities are not alone with this project. McGraw Hill is teaming up with Zinio to offer their textbooks in digital form as well. Via


  4. So, it’s turning out that Richard Stallman was right?

  5. The poor students of today! Today, 15 years after my undergrad and Ga Tech, I still have all of my calculus, chem and emag books. Even though I don’t refer to them that frequently, they’re priceless to have around at 3am on a Sunday morning when I’m trying to remember something long since forgotten.

    You’ll never find a DVD that’s nearly as good at crushing bugs as Thomas and Finney!

  6. Mark Christiansen says

    What a sad world we are building with every little thing metered and tracked even how long one can use a school textbook. Our lives will be governed by EULAs written by a handful of corporate lawyers and enforced electronically without even the little bit of common sense and compromise actually present in the law and in the courts.

    I do wonder how much of this people will put up with. Certainly many tolerate far more than I do. For instance I would never own an I-Pod due to its DRM yet many claim it sets the standard for friendly DRM and is a commercial success. Will people give up on owning and fully controlling the things they buy? Maybe. Sad, very sad.

  7. I can’t wait until some bright kid breaks the DRM. Free books for everyone!

  8. “The book is a leaky IP content delivery device. It is compromised by the photocopier.”

    As far as I can tell, e-books are just as “leaky.” Taking a screenshot of an e-book reader takes about the same effort as photocopying a printed book.

  9. I suppose that the most obvious flaw in the scheme is that the book expires after 5 months. In the end what am I paying for? I can understand the DRM to a point, but any expiration of the work makes it a ridiculous price to pay. Copying portions of the work could be handled with a digital camera (or all of it if you were that motivated) so the price is the key. Since I got half the price back for books sold back to the student store, the price for the digital copy is actually more expensive, and much less useful. You’d have to be an idiot, which perhaps is the exersize, or perhaps it’s just to look cool, since it’s really about throwing away your money on technology, something that the “ruling class” loves to do.

  10. If the students have the choice between the traditional textbook (at traditional price) and the e-book version, then the market will operate via the students’ choices of which version to buy.

    If the traditional paper version is discontinued (or offered at an astronomical price), then students might have to buy the book anyway if the professor requires it. But good professors make textbook decisions based on the usefulness of the book to the students (and the book’s price) so reducing the quality of a book will cost sales indirectly as professors shift their courses away from the book. So market forces still do operate, though not as quickly or efficiently as if students could choose more autonomously.

    It’s a different story if collusion or monopoly power come into play, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

  11. Doug Hudson says

    Mr. Fitch’s statement is wrong as a matter of law, as a matter of economic policy, and as a matter of basic human rights.

    Legally speaking, in the US infringing an IP right is not a criminal offense. Under certain conditions, infringing some IP rights, when done with a particular intent and when performed with the intent to economically benefit (which includes receipt of other copyrighted works, i.e. file sharing), may infringe criminal law. But, for example, simply infringing a patent or a trademark is not criminal, nor is basic infringement of a copyright (especially when that use is in the grey area between fair use and violation of someone’s copyright).

    As a matter of economic policy, we want the most efficient use of IP to make the most use (and the most money to enter the market economy). As such, IP owners have a bundle of rights, but these rights are not unlimited in scope. The most damaging aspect of this use of DRM is that people buy textbooks not just for their copyrighted material but for their FACTUAL CONTENT. Facts are not copyrightable, nor is the use of factual material from a textbook for further research and development. In the vast majority of cases, students will never buy this type of DRM’ed textbook unless it is (a) must cheaper than a real textbooks or (b) the only textbook available. Copyright holders do not want (a), so they will try to make (b) occur as soon as possible. (b), however, is not economically efficient, because “bottling up” academic factual information causes such substantial deadweight loss to education, research and development that it either won’t be adopted by end users, or affected students, teachers and publishers will create their own competing products without such restrictions to undercut such a poorly conceived business plan. Unless publishers employ further legal restrictions to prevent competitors from entering the market, or they get governments to revert to pre-statute of anne copyright monopolies, this business plan will fail.

    Finally, students think they have a basic human right to access to INFORMATION. This is distinct from the right to access to a copyrighted work. Under American law, the idea-expression dichotomy (17 usc 102(b)) prevents copyright from extending to facts or ideas underlying the copyrighted work. Attempts to technically undermine this distinction will either be ignored by the academic world, if enforced will face serious legal challenge (unlike ProCD, these restrictions are not for commercial entities but for academic research and education at the very core of fair use under 17 usc 107), or, if the technical DRM is so restrictive as to attempt to extend the copyright holder’s rights far beyond the scope of copyright, may cause the copyright holders to lose their underlying copyright in the textbook under the doctrine of copyright misuse. In a worst case scenario, publishers would see a consumer backlash that could result in a serious revision of American copyright laws, something much more dangerous to the publishing industry than a student copying a few pages from a traditional textbook for academic research.

    IP is a form of taxation, enforced by the government, where the proceeds are given to IP holders. Just like traditional taxes, IP is a net benefit to society. However, just like traditional taxes, overtaxation via IP can lead to the same economic inefficiencies (i.e. the Laffer curve), net losses to the IP holder, and the same type of economic backlash that traditional tax policy faced in the US in the last 20 years. Just a warning.

    Access to IP should be set by market prices, not by technical manipulation or publisher collusion to restrict the availability of traditional textbooks. The later course spells disaster for the industry.

  12. Clinton Blackmore says

    Is there a free market in textbooks? It seems to me that usually a specific text is required, which can only be obtained (new) from one source.

    As for other things, though, I agree. If consumers have a choice, (and perhaps after making some mistakes first), they will want to avoid DRM solutions. Thus producers will have to force DRM onto consumers — “Get object X, now in a new value-reduced format!”

  13. “A new educational initiative is in place that involves digitally capturing all curriculum material for the four years of dental school and providing it to students on a single DVD. Rather than walking to class with an arm full of textbooks and manuals, first year dental students receive the DVD and a laptop computer. Students trade in the DVD every six months for a new one that contains the most up-to-date editions of course material. The technology allows students to mark up the text and highlight pages, post notes, merge text and graphics on different pages, and save the information in a book-marked file. The DVD is packaged with an advanced query engine that allows dental students to easily access information vertically and horizontally across the curriculum. ”

    No choices.

  14. The book is a leaky IP content delivery device. It is compromised by the photocopier.

    Given that IP theft is a federal crime, it is only right that publishers are able to utilise the best methods they have available for securing their legally protected property.

    E-Books secured by DRM/DMCA will obviously enable the publishers to charge a far higher price if they can obtain complete control over delivery of content to consumer.

    There seems to be this ludicrous notion going around that somehow students have a human right to access someone else’s IP, or a portion thereof, for free or a price of their own choosing.