The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More students are illegally downloading college textbooks for free

(Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg)

It’s hard (if not impossible) to know just how prevalent this practice is, but some college students around the country are uploading their expensive college textbooks onto the Internet so other students can download them for free and avoid the hefty fees that are sometimes more than $200 a book. has a story titled “Why College Students are Stealing Their Textbooks,” which notes that some students are even downloading them for ethics classes.

The cost to students of college textbooks skyrocketed 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. General Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. As a result, students have been looking for less expensive options, such as renting books — and, now, finding them on the Internet, uploaded by other students.

In August, an organization called the Book Industry Study Group, which represents publishers, retailers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, librarians and others in the industry, released a survey of some 1,600 students and found, according to a release on the data, that “students continue to become more sophisticated in acquiring their course materials at the lowest cost as illicit and alternative acquisition behaviors, from scanned copies to illegal downloads to the use of pirated websites, continue to increase in frequency.”

A year ago a student wrote on a Tumblr blog called “Children of the Stars” complaining about a professor who insisted that students buy an online version of a specific paperback sociology book for more than $200 — which the professor wrote himself — and would not allow them to purchase “an older, paperback edition of the same book for $5.” The student continued: “This is why we download,” and “Don’t ever, EVER buy the newest edition of a book,” which is followed by a list of  Web sites with pirated books. As of 2:20 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, the post had 780,942 views. decided to do an experiment to see how easy it would be to find college textbooks for free online. The story says:

We were curious how deep the selection of books is and how easy it is to download them, so we picked five typical freshman core courses, including Culture, Ethics and Economics at Barnard College, Humanities 1217 at the University of Wisconsin and Honors Philosophy 200 at Michigan State University. Working off the syllabi for these classes and others, we tried to download all our textbooks without paying a dime from the sites offered up by the “Children of the Stars” blogger…. We typed in the titles for our books, one by one, and found them all immediately. Within minutes, we had four textbooks on our hard drive: Herodutus’ Histories, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Physics: The Human Adventure.

The Web site said it found tweets from students across the country — “from New York University and Long Beach State to the University of Michigan and George Mason University touting the joys of shaving several thousand dollars off their college bills.”

Here are some tweets about free textbook downloading that were published on Wednesday at “textbook pdf”:

It isn’t legal to upload or download copyrighted material without permission, but that isn’t stopping students from doing it. The Web site said in its story that schools aren’t doing a lot to proactively stop it.

Correction: Earlier version misspelled name of website. It is now correct.