Why College Students Are Stealing Their Textbooks

Sep 17, 2014 at 12:05 PM ET

College students have long complained about the ridiculously high cost of textbooks. But irritation over price gouging is now morphing into a kind of rebellion. A large chunk of students are done shelling out $100 apiece (or more) for textbooks they barely use, and they have no qualms about breaking the law to get the materials for free.

One student took to his Tumblr page last year to vent his frustration—and the massive reaction he got speaks volumes about students’ mindset on the issue. The blogger complained about the pressure to purchase an updated version of his “sadistic” professor’s sociology book. “I left with no option other than buying a piece of paper for over $200,” the student lamented, anonymously.

“This is why we download,” the student declared. He went on to list more than a dozen websites where readers can get textbooks for nothing (or next to nothing).

Prior to the Tumblr post from last September, it’s hard to find an actual conversation on Twitter, Facebook or the anonymous social app Whisper about illicitly downloading college textbooks. The post now has over 750,000 “interactions”—likes, comments and reblogs—and the list of sites the blogger circulated is still bouncing around Twitter. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of tweets about textbook pdfs was in the hundreds each year. Starting in late 2013, that amount spiked to thousands a month. (We reached out to the blogger, whose Tumblr page is “Children of the Stars,” but he hasn’t responded.)

The economics of college life are a mess. Students are not only hit with the high cost of textbooks—up more than 800 percent over the last 35 years—but they’re also dealing with constant tuition hikes and, on top of it all, an anemic job market. Thanks to bloggers like “Children of the Stars,” textbooks are now one area where students are starting to have a bit more financial control—even if it requires breaking the law. From New York University and Long Beach State to the University of Michigan and George Mason University, students are touting the joys of shaving several thousand dollars off their college bills.

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.

Some sites, like Ebookee and TextbookRevolution, focus more on math and science textbooks. Others, like Free-ebooks and Freebookspot, have a deeper selection of humanities-related tomes. We didn’t have to look far to find what we needed. At Textbooknova, we acquired a torrent app and were off to the races. 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.

Often, students say, if you hit roadblocks on one site—the downloading cuts out halfway, say—you can often find the same book on another site, where you’ll have better luck. But there are still some gaps. Ronnie Casasola is a cash-strapped freshman at Cal State Long Beach. He’s been looking online for about a half-dozen books he needs for his engineering classes. “I’ve searched a lot of the sites, but I haven’t found my book.” He tried to download one book, but the site pdf file gave him only the first 20 pages.

Earlier this month, the frustrated Casasola (aka @ronsterDMonster) tweeted out, “Leak college textbook pdf files not nudes.” It was retweeted 40,000 times.

While it’s technically illegal to download copyrighted textbooks from pirate sites, most schools don’t make any major attempts to stop it beyond simply discouraging students from illegal downloading. An NYU spokesman told us that while the school doesn’t track illicit downloading of textbooks, it reminds any students it catches about the school’s policy prohibiting the practice.

More of the enforcement effort is focused on shutting down the bigger host sites. The bigger textbook companies, including Pearson, Macmillan and John Wiley & Sons, have pages on their websites where people can report on piracy host sites; the publishers then pass those tips to their law firms. In 2012, a German court shut down two of the biggest textbook pirating sites, and The sites, both based in Ireland, had hosted pirated versions of 400,000 titles and made more than $10 million via advertisers that bought space on the site and premium-level user accounts.

Some publishers are also trying to fight back against illicit downloaders by using cloud-based software for their textbooks that has an expiration date. Others are turning to license models for virtual textbooks, where students never actually take ownership of the book.

Meanwhile, some students are renting their textbooks, which can help lower the price. But it’s hard to compete with free. The Book Industry Study Group, which represents publishers, librarians and retailers, surveyed 1,600 students in July and found that more than a quarter of them admitted to downloading textbooks from a pirate site or knowing someone who has.

It’s unclear why textbook downloading is just now taking off, years after students first began pirating music and movies. But it may be because until fairly recently, textbook publishers didn’t offer ebook versions.

“I started doing it more over the last two years,” says Steven, a recent NYU biology graduate, who gave only his first name. Some of the downloads didn’t render properly, says Steven, who is planning to apply to medical school. “There were incomplete figures and some were completely gone; it isn’t always perfect,” he says. But here’s the key: “I probably saved a couple thousand over the years.”

Any niggling ethical concerns about ripping off textbooks? Not really, says Shah, another downloader, who just graduated from Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Shah used to work at an off-campus college bookstore and remembers feeling bad for all the suckers who bought new books every year. “It’s just ridiculous to have to pay $200-something for a book and then return it for almost nothing.”

Interestingly, the very guy who helped spark the downloading frenzy last year is now having second thoughts. The “Children of the Stars” blogger posted on Tumblr two weeks ago, saying he wishes he could put the genie back into the bottle. “Casual reminder that even a year after, I still hate that textbook post, and I hate everyone who has liked and reblogged it,” he wrote, without further explanation.