Copyright and graduate textbooks

A problem with graduate textbooks, especially in the sciences, is their cost. It is quite common for a graduate student to shell out several hundred dollars to purchase required textbooks for graduate courses. In fact, because graduate courses are typically taken early on, when a student is fresh in graduate school and may not have yet acquired the necessary cash management skills, this expense can deal a serious blow to a student’s finances.

In some cases, one could conceivably accept the argument that the usefulness of graduate textbooks extends beyond the duration of the course, as these are books which a professional scientist often consults. Therefore, one might look at this as an investment. And even if their career takes them out of research or science, seldom will physics Master’s or PhD graduates get rid of their graduate textbooks.
In principle a student could also do without purchasing a graduate textbook, as the university library with typically carry one copy for consultation. Clearly, however, it is vastly more convenient to have one’s own copy, and borrowing one from a fellow graduate student may not always be a viable option (because they are so expensive, these books are seldom loaned).
One could ask the question: is a textbook really necessary for a graduate course ? In my experience, even though students at that level should acquire the habit of consulting different books, providing at least one “official” reference makes things easier, both for the instructor as well as for the students. A textbook not only provides an overview of the subject and a sense for the logical connection between the different topics, but also facilitates more mundane matters such as assigning homework.

Sometimes, however, things get really complicated. This term I have been assigned Quantum Mechanics, and for a number of reasons I have decided to base the course on Feynman’s Path Integral approach [0]. I mostly teach the course off my notes, which are, of course, constantly evolving and summarize my own understanding of this subject. I would like to be able to provide a textbook too, but the obvious reference is out of print. It is possible to find copies, but price can be quite formidable (over one thousand dollars).
This has been the situation for this book for quite some time. Surprisingly, publishers such as Dover, famous for producing affordable paperback copies of classic physics textbooks, have shied away from reprinting this particular book.

What is an instructor supposed to do in these cases ? In principle I could make photocopies of my own personal copy of the book, and distribute them to all students who have registered for the course. In my case, things would be even easier, because I happen to have a PDF version of the entire book, made a few years back by an uncommonly industrious and talented graduate student.
Of course, I am hesitant to do that because there are copyright restrictions, and I am not sure whether distributing such a copy of an out-of-print book is legal, or the circumstances under which it would be considered acceptable. I do not want to get into a discussion of copyright restrictions, a subject I know nothing about, but I am wondering whether in the name of copyright a publisher can prevent someone from acquiring a book. Should this book be regarded as non-existent until someone officially reprints it ?


[0] My feelings about graduate courses are expounded here. I see no point in rehashing undergraduate material, and the path integral formulation is not commonly included in undergraduate Quantum Mechanics syllabi.

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4 Responses to “Copyright and graduate textbooks”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    Copying would probably not be legal, but nobody, who would have minded, would have found out, had you not written this post.

    You could:

    – Write up your notes nicely to produce lecture notes. This would keep you from doing any research whatsoever, and you would fast be labelled deadwood.

    – Get someone else to write up your notes nicely to produce lecture notes. You could practice your “evil-professor” skills…..

    – Copy and distribute your own notes in the state they are currently in and only add some pages of the book to make it easier to claim “fair use”. This would mostly take away the point of using an official book.

    – Combine the previous three approaches and be labelled “chaotic evil deadwood.”

    – Illegally print lots of copies and sell them at 500$ apiece. I like this one.

    (Used copies starting at 250$ ???????, Starting????? Sure, quantum mechanics makes you feel good, but THAT good…..)

  2. Ian Says:

    If you want the most “legal” method of copying the book, then perhaps you could get it as a course pack through SUBPrint. I know Dr. Page used to get a pre-release textbook made into a coursepack and was sold for something like ~$40-50. SUBPrint will build in the cost of copyrighting the authors and will also take care of the photocopying and binding for you. You may also have to do the legwork of getting the copyright yourself. I think in Dr. Page’s case, he knew the author of the textbook he used (for classical mechanics – phys 244).

    On a side note, my graduate quantum course starts tomorrow at SFU, unfortunately, I’ll likely be getting the traditional approach to QM.

  3. R Says:

    I have no useful info on the copyright issue, but I think you are not supposed to have pdf versions of books unless the publisher sells that option and that’s the format you bought it in. I know many people do it, but it is probably a bad idea to go around saying you have one.

    Also, you teach on Monday and Thursday? I had never seen classes scheduled like that. Weird.

  4. Cherish Says:

    When I took celestial mechanics, the book the prof wanted to use was out of print. He contacted the publishers and said he would like to provide photocopies of the book to his students. The publisher required a small fee from each student ($7) and the prof also charged us the cost of photocopying (something like another $10). This worked really well.

    I would suggest contacting the publisher and asking if you can do something similar. Then you could either supply the .pdf or a printed version to the students at a low cost without violating copyrights.

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