Sunday, August 21, 2011

How the one-week free printing "holiday" could backfire, and more free textbook doomsday predictions

You know how banks and big corporations hire hackers to help create network security systems by exploiting loopholes and then reporting on the problems? Well, consider this proof-of-concept post a warning. After all, if I'm able to figure this out at the ripe old age of 27, you bet the first-year students are already well aware of this trick.

Consider: The Technology Support Center announced a free printing "holiday" in campus computer labs. An email to the entire student-body included the following:

Information Technology Services (ITS) is pleased to announce that there will be a printing "holiday" for students on the main and Firelands campus from 6 a.m. Monday, August 22 through 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, August 27. During this time period students may print in any open lab without incurring a charge. The process to print will remain the same, however when the charge to print appears it will be calculated as zero.

The normal cost-per-page printing system is a result of the university's Print Responsibly program. "With Print Responsibly in place BGSU no longer owns any non-specialized printers, copiers, fax machines or scanners, and is no longer responsible for purchasing/replacing toner, or other materials or maintenance costs. A per page price is paid for printing/copying/faxing services" (source).

While Print Responsibly increases computer lab sustainability for the university, it normally puts some of the burden of printing costs on the students. However, during what I'm now referring to as Printapalooza, students will have unlimited free printing capabilities for an entire week! Since printing operations (and costs) are no longer handled by the university, I don't think the university will be footing the bill for the forthcoming printing free-for-all.

I asked ITS for clarification about whether there will be a page limit, and they replied via email: "This is unlimited printing for all students for the week. We hope that students will use it justly."

How will this be abused? I'm glad you asked...

Book scanning services have been cropping up due to an increased demand for digital print. Traditionally, book scanning services have been rather expensive. Recently, Hack College posted about a new service that scans 100 book pages for 1 dollar. This means you could convert your textbook into a printable PDF for a couple bucks - and then take advantage of the free printing "holiday" to print copies for you and your classmates.

What's the catch? Well, the cheapest scan option from 1DollarScan is what's called "destructive scanning" and means the binding will be cut to increase the scanning speed. So this means students will not be scanning their textbooks and returning them to the bookstore. However, there's nothing stopping them (other than copyright laws) from pooling their money for one book that can be turned into an unlimited number of digital copies, or printed for free during Printapalooza.

Free printing and textbooks in PDF form sound like a risky combination to me, and it's concerning that no printing limits have been set. Is the free printing "holiday" going to backfire? I guess we'll find out on Monday.

Continue reading for more doomsday predictions...

If book scanning services are only $6 for 600 page textbooks, what is going to stop students from uploading PDF textbooks to bootleg websites, making expensive books available for free. Could this be the tip of the iceberg that sinks the textbook industry? I think there are a lot of parallels between hypothetical digital textbook download websites, and the rise of bootleg mp3 music files that proliferated when I was an undergrad in the early 2000's.

Could it happen? One survey suggests that it's already happening. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) published the results of a study titled Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education. The study found that "More than 40% of survey respondents said they bought a textbook from a pirate website, or know others who have. In addition, many respondents reported copying their friends' textbooks" (source).

The BISG also found that photocopying course materials and illegal downloading of course content is on the rise among college students. In fact, they report that illegal photocopying of content doubled (from 20% to 40%) since Fall 2010.

When you put a tool like free printing in the hands of students who are more and more likely to illegally photocopy or download textbooks, along with no limitations other than hoping students will "use it justly," I think the temptation to illegally print entire books for free is just too great.