The legality of a textbook exchange program at my University

Book prices are ridiculous. I buy textbooks for 100$ and get a return of 15$. Students at my university (and myself) are fed up. I am VP of the Student Gov’t so I want to do something about it.

I do not want to tarnish the name of our student gov’t by creating a textbook program that is illegal due to copyright laws (or any related laws) I have a good feeling if I did this through the student gov’t, we would eventually pay since the school and local bookstores affiliated with the school will be affected.

A textbook exchange program would have students trade books for other books or sell them to each other. Is this illegal? What repercussions would we face?

Another idea I had is to create a forum and let the students post their books and info on there. That way it wouldn’t be endorsed by the student government. Could we receive any backlash from this?

In terms of copyright laws, what do I need to consider?

Also, (and un-GQ related)… Please share any ideas you may have for this. Has your alma mater had a successful textbook exchange program? How did it work? Did it work?

I appreciate all the help anyone can give… it will save students thousands of $$$

The internet will make this thing a lot easier. But… why in the world do you think you’d have copyright concerns?

Since it’s legal to sell used books to the bookstore, there’s no reason to think there’d be legal problems with selling them to other students.

FYI, when I was in college many moons ago (early in the internet age), my student government ran a similar program to what you describe with no worries.

There are no copyright issues in selling or reselling a book. None. The book – as an object – is not subject to them.

That’s why your bookstore can buy and sell them. And students for years have offered old textbooks for sale, usually by putting up flyers on campus.

As long as you are not making a copy of the textbook, you can buy or sell it as you like. (Take a look at eBay – people are selling books there all the time.)

As I remember at my school, the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega operated a textbook exchange, and I think some used textbooks were sold by the bookstore in the student union.

So I don’t see any legal reasons this wouldn’t work. The big problem is whether you can find someone to operate it.

My concern falls with the fact that they may see a student selling a book to another student as making money off of someone else’s work (or something related). I don’t know if that’s logical but I’m trying to cover all the bases.

IANAL, but I don’t think there’s any legal issues WRT copyright, since you’re not copying anything. (Software that comes with some textbooks now eould be a different issue, since that typically is copied onto a users computer, and in any event may be subject to a specific licencing agreement.)

The issue that often does cause problems witht his sort of venture is that the school may have a contract with the company that runs the bookstore granting them the exclusive right to distribute and sell textbooks on campus. This means that although you wouldn’t be doing anything illegal in setting up the exchange, the school could be in breach of contract if they fail to stop you (or make reasonable efforts to try to stop you).

At the very least, this probably means that you will have to host any exchange off campus. It may also mean eliminating any connection with the student government, using only private computers to run listservs, refraining from advertising in school media and publications (and possibly even on school buliten boards), and/or avoiding mention of the school’s name in advertising and promotion of the exchange.

INAL, however there are certainly no copyright issues involved. I’d say you need to be more concerned about fraud and personal security issues…creep arrainges to meet coed to buy book and ends up raping her… that sort of thing.

And it’s not as if this is a new idea:

Many moons ago, when I was a poor college student, and had books I was sure I would never need, I used to hang out at the bookstore untill I saw someone pick up a used copy. I would then approach them and offer my book at a price which split the difference between wholesale and retail. win-win It never took more than one attempt to sell a book this way. This typically doubled what I got for used books.

I’m sure the bookstore would have objected if they’d cottoned to what I was doing. In which case I would have lurked outside the appropriate classrooms…probably would have been more effiecient to find customers, but at the store, they could see the going rate, and verify I was offering a good price.

Note that the information in my above post is true only if the school does have such a contract with an independant bookstore complany. Many schools do, but some schools continue to run their own bookstores, in which case there is unlikely to be any problem with your plans.

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Permit me to play Devil’s advocate.

You seem outraged that you pay “too much” when buying new books and don’t receive “enough” when selling used books. There doesn’t seem to be awareness that there are reasons for what things cost, aside from some abstract villain greedily trying to stick it to people.

There was time when the only way to sell your used books was to find, on your own, someone willing to buy them before said someone bought new books. It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of time. In one sense, you’re lucky to have any opportunity to sell your used books.

You may well find that the logistics of setting up a textbook buyback/exchange program are a lot more involved than you now realize. The people and companies that do this need some compensation to make it worth their while, and you don’t get that by buying high and selling low. The prices involved reflect economic reality, not wishful thinking about how much something “should” cost.

If you can develop a competing program that actually works and saves students money, great – go for it. But I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that you’ll find it much more of a challenge than you bargained for.

A better solution is book rental. At UW-Platteville they had (and may still have) all textbooks available. You pick them up, you return them at the end of the semester. (you could by them if you wanted) The costs were included in tuition.


A) There is not much competition, on this end, in the textbook industry. At Southern Illinois University-Carbondale there is one University Bookstore and one or two off-campus bookstores. This is a town with six or seven different places to buy a pizza.

B) There are reasons for what things cost, yes. Those reasons are driven largely by supply, demand and competition. Demand for textbooks is largely inelastic, meaning that people generally need textbooks and almost always (barring a large-scale exchange program or somesuch) MUST purchase them. For something non-essential (luxury goods), price affects demand because demand is highly elastic. This model does not work with essential goods and services (e.g. gasoline), except in exteme cases.

C) Given that there is quite a large gap between what one receives for a used book and what one must pay for the same used book at the bookstores, it seems that there is a natural price range which would be beneficial for both the buyer and seller. What is left then, is a way to bring the two together. Seems to me an internet forum could be maintained for minimal cost. There are other ways of doing it, of course. These guys seem to have found a way to implement a successful solution:

Man, this is a real hot button issue of mine…but I’ll try to keep it dialed down to “simmer”.

I don’t see that there are any copywrite issues here–it’s no different than selling and purchasing books at a used bookstore, or trading books among friends–but as someone already indicated the university administration may have some conflict here. Analogously, I recall at my Uni that all departments were prohibited from offering products from the Coca-Cola company at any function, even if they were purchased with department (not general overhead) funds, because the food service contract was with a vendor (Marriot, as I recall) that patronized Pespico. (Oddly, the vending machines were serviced by a company that offered primarily Coke products. Weird.)

You might consider using Ebay, Craigslist, or some other existing networking system, as both a way of getting around any administration difficulties and avoiding the effort of setting up a unique distribution system. Alternatively, you might just hold an “Exchange Party”, letting people sign up for the texts they are looking for and swap out with those they already have. I’d be careful about handling any money from both a legal and logistical point of view and just let the students hash it out by barter or private exchange.

One problem you’re going to have with this, though, is that textbook makers routinely issue “new editions” of venerated textbooks, each altered just enough to make it the previous edition unusable; i.e. a slight reordering of pages and different problem sets. In Chemistry, Calculus, and Thermodynamics (all 2 or more semesters) I had to purchase different texts for each semester despite that the relevent classes ostensibly used the same text; and of course, the second set of texts were only available as new. Grrr. I understand that, despite the high prices, textbooks are a rather low margin item for publishers due to the small printing runs and expense of four color or full color printing, but the result is that the student ends up paying $300 or more a semester, and worse, for texts (at least, in engineering and science) that are often overblown, full of factual, typographical, and illustrative errors, and are otherwise not worth $70 or more, for the same information that is presented more succintly and accurately in a $12 Schaum’s Outline (albeit lacking color bombast). If the university had to offer textbooks as part of the tuition fees, I’ve no doubt that they’d change their attitude regarding the cost and issuance of textbooks significantly.

BTW, the campus I went to had an “official and only” bookstore, as most do. Another new/used textbook store established itself right off of campus; buying up and selling used books for reasonable prices (rather than the usurous scalpings the Uni store offered). The Administration, no doubt prompted by the bookstore, quietly asked professors to rotate or select new texts (some did, some didn’t) while refusing to inform the independent store what texts would be used in the subsequent semester. That was, in my opinion, a nasty bit of protectionism, but the independent store managed to get by.

These days, when I want to look up some info on a basic topic or refresh my skill with O-Chem or Statistics, I generally pull out one of the old but serviceable Outlines. On more advanced topics, I still go to standard texts and references, of course, but for the fundamental stuff, it’s just easier than wading through a bunch of four color garbage to get to a derivation. (Feynman’s Lectures are still the bomb, though and well worth the cost in the hardback binding.)


A third party operates BookBay, where students can buy or sell textbooks.

If you do decide to run a textbook exchange, I’d do it through a website to avoid The Look from the people who run the bookstore, and also to keep enough distance between buyer and seller so there are no safety problems.


The website seems convenient for book buyers and sellers to find each other, but I’d prefer actual transfer of money and book to be done in person (or maybe through a third-party escrow person volunteer) on campus. Otherwise it seems like a waste of shipping costs.

This may or may not be an obstacle. When I took graduate electrodynamics, most of the class had the third (and most current) edition of Jackson’s book, but some students had venerable old dog-eared copies of the second edition. The professor, on learning just what changes were made between the editions (precious little, and most of the real changes were for the worse), went to the trouble for each problem set of finding the problem numbers for both the second and third editions. Professors are not, generally, in on the scam, and are generally willing to make most reasonable accomodations (and even some unreasonable ones).

My college had a very similar thing. There was the official bookstore, owned by an large bookstore corporation. When the independent bookstore opened off campus, the college likewise tried to lean on the proffesors-- and it backfired. I took class after class where the proffesors would ONLY order books from the indie store, and tell their class why. The indie store was fabulous, and had a wildly popular program of “book reservations”, where you’d call or email in your class schedule, they’d box them up, and you could go pick them up, or have them delivered. Even on move-in weekend, the line moved hella faster when you just had to hand them your reservation number. Eventually the university bookstore had to create a similar program just to keep up.

I was a history major, with a side of Lit. Both departments that seemed to cater to the “fight the power” type of proffesors. One provided every student with spiral bound copies of his own textbook for $1.50. (By my senior year, he offered them by pdf, too-- print free at the computer lab if you wanted to) Another sent us all lists with links for the cheapest versions of our course books to be found on Amazon. Another placed 5 personal copies of each course book on reserve at the library reading room, so you could take the class without buying a single book, if you wanted to. I always respected those teachers a lot.

Richard Feynmann was on a committee reviewing science textbooks (high school or grade school). He found out completely by accident that book publishers would lower their prices a lot if they found out a competitor’s book was being chosen.

So competition is a big factor.

I got some things wrong. The entire episode from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is posted with permission on Here’s an excerpt.

Yes there are reasons, but in the case of text books, those reasons are called “gouging students.” There are no market forces at work. The students are required to buy the books as part of their class. The publishers provide “incentives” to schools and professors to make their books a mandatory part of their curriculuum. Twenty-five years ago, when the costs of short runs were prohibitive, I’m certain that there were times when a $60 list price was necessary. Print on demand technologies have now eliminated that issue, and even if you have a lot of four-color pictures in a textbook, it’s hard for me to imagien a situation where the cost of producing a book would warrant such extreme prices.

Consider this reference book. It’s over 1700 pages, updated annually, and you can order it for $16.97. Don’t tell me that this books exists in the same world as a textbook that **has to ** sell for $100.