Our Right To Read Cheaply

It is the start of a new semester, and with it comes the proverbial clean slate: new professors, new courses, new assignments and new —very expensive— coursepacks. I had never thought photocopying could be so costly, but since arriving here I’ve learned about royalties, the copyright clearinghouse organizations and the legal wrinkles that make our university copy shops the —perhaps unwilling— servants of established publishing houses. It has been an expensive lesson.

My ideal schedule would have me shell out $500 for sourcebooks alone—not including another $300 for real, honest-to-God books. Some of these sourcebooks cost almost $200 apiece, for example the infamous sourcebook for Literature and Arts B-20, “Designing the American City: Civic Aspirations and Urban Form” that costs an astounding $200.50. Is there any logical constraint on what we will be asked to pay for an item with little, if any, residual value once the semester is over?

Eight hundred dollars a semester in books and coursepacks is not a minor expense. A friend on a full scholarship is given only a $600 yearly allowance for books; at a fairly standard student wage of $10 per hour it would take 80 hours (ignoring possible income taxes) to make up the difference. That’s at least eight working weeks on a student schedule—most of the semester.

There seems to be no easy solution to this problem. We cannot demand that Harvard Printing and Publications Services (HPPS) or the Coop produce sourcebooks in violation of copyright law. We can ask that professors attempt to choose readings frugally and wisely, but this does not guarantee results. For example, the history of science department assured me in writing that “every effort was made to keep costs down.” Then they blithely informed me that my sourcebook for this semester’s tutorial would be $180, plus tax and shipping. I hope it at least comes with gold filigree and leather binding.

We can use sourcebooks held on reserve in College libraries or departmental offices, but with so few extra copies the attempt is often more trouble than it’s worth. Ever try to find that critical reading a day or two before lecture when dozens of students from a class of 100 are vying for two copies held at Lamont and one at Hilles?

There is, however, a creative solution to the problem of expensive coursepacks. Under copyright law, students may take a batch of copyrighted material and make a single copy, or a small number of copies, for personal use.

This is called “fair use,” and it is the way to bring the price of coursepacks down at Harvard. We must call upon HPPS and the other groups that produce sourcebooks to help students take advantage of fair use. Sourcebooks should be sold in three ring binders, rather than bound by tape or spiral, so students can more easily share and copy. Departments should make available copies of the compiled sourcebooks completely unbound and printed on single sided sheets. The University, or perhaps the Undergraduate Council, should buy extra high-volume hopper-fed photocopiers, which the students could use to make their own copies of the sourcebook material, in a way that legally exempts them from paying copyright. Whoever provides the copiers is likely profit handsomely in the process.

Copyrights are intended to protect the author and publisher from rival commercial houses seeking to copy, and distribute for profit, work that properly belongs to another person. Fair use was meant to exempt readers from having to contact and pay the publisher for personal use copyrighted material, even when that use entails making a small number of non-commercial personal copies.

A sourcebook is just that: a batch of single copies of published works meant for individual convenience. It is not an attempt to mass-market a copyrighted work in a for-profit manner in circumvention of established law and ethics. However, by the vagaries of our organization and a particular reading of the law, our printing services, and therefore our students, are being asked to pay costs that we should not have to pay. Barring a change in legislation or jurisprudence, then, we must strive for creative, effective and legal solutions to lift these crushing and senseless financial burdens from our student body. After all, if I work this semester, I’d like to enjoy the fruits of my labor, and not indenture myself out to pay for costs that ought not be paid.

—Noam B. Katz