Meera Nair

the free market…

In Posts on August 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Last week’s dual topics both deserve closer attention; deciding where to focus this week was a challenge. Then a few lines from one of my daughter’s favourite books came to me:

The free market must always be completely free.
The free market must be controlled in certain cases.
The free market must be free enough to control its freedom in certain cases.
The free market must have enough control to free itself in certain cases.

[p.170 of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (New York: Little Brown & Company, 2007).]

Within last week’s decision concerning the K-12 tariff on photocopies of copyrighted material at Canadian schools, the Federal Court of Appeal (FCA) addressed the question: “was the dealing fair?” From paragraph 25:

The Board also examined the effect of the dealing on the work. It cited uncontradicted evidence that textbook sales have shrunk over 30 percent in 20 years. Though it admitted it could not define the exact reason for the decline in sales, it nevertheless concluded that photocopying had had an unfair effect (Decision at paragraph 112).

So, turning now to the earlier Copyright Board decision, paragraphs 110-111 give the fuller story:

The uncontradicted evidence from textbook publishers shows that textbook sales have shrunk by more than 30 per cent in 20 years. Several factors contributed to this decline, including the adoption of semester teaching, decrease in registrations, longer lifespan of textbooks, use of the Internet and other electronic tools, resource based learning and use of class sets. We are not able to determine precisely to what extent each factor contributed to this decline.

Despite being unable to determine precisely how these other factors contributed, the Copyright Board decided that there was sufficient impact to make the dealing unfair. (Keep in mind that this was one factor of analysis of the entire decision.)

While I understand that no precise determination can be made, I would like to know to what extent the factors were investigated at all? At the very least, school boards will track enrollment figures; lower enrollment could go a long way to explaining fewer text book purchases. One can only hope that teachers are using the Internet as they see appropriate to support a lesson. I’m not sure what “resource based learning” is but it still warrants explanation. And, judging by the dog-eared, broken-spined textbooks that D. lugs home periodically, I can attest to the “longer lifespan of textbooks”. Mercifully, good teachers can be effective without the glamour of new textbooks. It will be ironic if school boards choose to operate with thrift, only to be held financially accountable for affecting a market. Whatever happened to the market catering to its customers? (I forgot: the market must be controlled in certain cases…)

It’s probably heretical to say this, but could publishers allow that their books may not be useful? That school boards may no longer choose to waste taxpayer dollars on textbooks that claim to support a year’s worth of learning but don’t deliver? The Copyright Board considered the issue of substitution – and decided that in lieu of photocopying, school boards could have purchased the books instead (para.118). This assumes that the books actually meet schools’ needs. I have enough friends who are teachers that I can comfortably question this assumption

Here’s a counterfactual experiment set on the premise that photocopier technology does not exist. Consider this: the books are no longer useful to their intended market at the prices set by the publishers. School districts realize that their labour force include capable teachers whose time in the classroom makes them the best judge of what is helpful to students. Schools stop buying books and encourage teachers to use their own knowledge. And, handily enough, while the photocopier was never invented, digital technology and world-wide networks arrived on cue.

Okay, this is not entirely speculation. Ashlee Vance, of the New York Times, writes about the rise of open-source textbooks. A slow growing trend, but even “the traditional textbook publishers agree that the days of tweaking a few pages in a book just to sell a new edition are coming to an end.”

  1. I have no more knowledge of copyright laws than I have of global warming. But I have some experience with textbooks. First year university students carried tomes around, ostensibly for the learning of calculus. After having lugged it around through the day, they went home in the evenings to pick it up once again and open it at page 419, no.7, the first exercise in the assignment, only to find it was all Greek. Did it occur to them to look into the exposition that went before? Most, if not all, would rather go to the Lab for a measure of spoon feeding.
    In recent years, the once unread expositions are on the website, still unread. So are the assignments, their tutorial help, and their reckoning. No student in his right mind need forgo lunch to buy the monstrosities, or burden his spine with a Calculus text in his backpack anymore.

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