N. Gregory Mankiw is one of the most well-known economists in American politics. A Harvard professor, he chaired George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005 and served as a senior adviser for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Many observers saw him among the top contenders to replace Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve in a Romney administration.
But for hundreds of thousands of undergraduates, Mankiw is better known as the author of Principles of Economics, one of the best-selling college textbooks in America. Politics may have made Mankiw famous, but his book—list price: $293.95—has made him a very wealthy man.
The Internet has made access to many kinds of information more flexible and less expensive. Novels, films, songs, photographs—all manner of things can be gotten from a broad array of providers for low prices, or for free, in digital form. Creators and distributors of intellectual property have struggled to balance the erosion of old business models with opportunities to sell their products in new and interesting ways.
Yet the college textbook industry has not only managed to insulate itself from this trend—it has moved in the opposite direction, using digital content as a way to charge more money. Add-on software gets packaged with physical textbooks and often has an expiration date, undermining the resale market for books. Students and parents pay the price, which often gets added on top of increasingly onerous student loans.
Now a startup called Boundless.com is trying to change that with a service it calls “textbook replacement.” Over the last decade, a great deal of academic content has been made available on the Internet, for free. The open educational resources (OER) movement has produced high-quality texts, videos, charts, problem sets, and other useful content in a huge array of subjects. Some of the authors are college professors who want to share their work at a larger scale; others are sponsored by nonprofits promoting education in the developing world that embrace the ethos of the open Internet.
In fact, there’s so much open content out there now that sorting through it all can be daunting. Boundless curates OER and organizes it in a way that mirrors popular textbooks. So if you’ve been assigned to read Chapter 4 (“Principles of Supply and Demand”) of Mankiw’s book, you can simply head to Boundless and get free content that covers that same ideas and concepts, optimized for your tablet or e-reader. For students stocking up on textbooks for their spring 2013 classes, that sounds pretty appealing.
Naturally, the small group of major publishers that controls the lion’s share of the $7 billion textbook market is now trying sue Boundless out of existence. They don’t argue that Boundless actually copies what’s written in their textbooks, because it doesn’t. Instead, they argue that the order of chapters is sacrosanct—as if deciding to put “Principles of Supply and Demand” before “Elasticity” is so complicated and critical that it’s worth $293.95.
One of the litigants is Cengage, publisher of Principles of Economics. In the legal complaint filed with the court, the publishers explain, “The Research Papers in Economics project has ranked Dr. Mankiw as the 25th most influential economist in the world based on his academic contributions.” But if that really mattered, they would have no reason to sue Boundless, since consumers would be willing to pay a premium for Mankiw’s expertise.
In fact, publishers are simply protecting the rents they’re extracting from college students. The college textbook market is unusual in that the person deciding what people should buy—the professor—isn’t the one actually doing the buying. It’s akin to prescription drugs and suffers from many of the same excesses, with large companies vying to protect highly-profitable blockbuster products and employing legions of salespeople to influence the relatively small number of agents who decide what millions of consumers will buy.