Beirut: “World Book Capital”

November 5th, 2009

wbc

The following is a letter I wrote to the faculty of AUB regarding our non-existent policies to counter  the rampant copyright infringements that occur under our noses, literally, as students sit in their seats with photocopied books wide open. Despite copyright laws in Lebanon, this practice is “normal” and prevalent in copy centers/book stores throughout the country. So what happens is that a $50 book is happily bought for a fraction of the price in a nicely bound photocopied version. In light of Beirut being UNESCO’s “World Book Capital” (April 2009 – 2010), as well as the English Department’s recent experience of being denied more than one textbook from publishers (presumably because of low book sales at AUB/English Dept), I decided to voice my longtime opinion on this subject to garner action.  The result: Most of the response from faculty members was less than stellar and often less than polite. I will keep the rest of my opinions to myself. But the responses have inspired many questions: Why are faculty members complacent on this issue? Why are faculty members so defensive when confronted with the issue? What is there to lose if there were a policy instated? What are we fighting (is there an agenda?) by not having a policy? etc.

In any case, I am optimistic that at least starting the conversation has planted a seed. (And, optimistic, as I have had many sensible conversations with faculty members about this…)

Official Site: http://www.beirutworldbookcapital.com/?lang=en

I will update as responses come in…and there are definitely more to come…


________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Colleagues,

Beirut is this year’s UNESCO World Book Capital. Let’s be real – there is ethical need for a name change; how about World Book Slum, where dressed up books dare not enter for fear of being ripped off.

Recently, in the English Department, we found out how sharply the slack copyright laws in this land are affecting our classrooms. In the spring, the English Communication Skills instructors deliberated over choosing a rhetoric book for our 203 and 204 English courses, which are required for almost every single matriculating AUB student. We selected from our few choices and we put in our request to the publisher, only to find out later – and at the last second – that we (Lebanon? AUB?) is on the book black list: no books for us! To add insult to injury, the previous book we had been using for two years was suddenly restricted entry by the publisher as well, probably because only approximately 10% of our students ever bought the original. Why should they when they can get a photocopied version for a fraction of the price?

We cannot wait for our on-again-off-again government to initiate control over copyright infringements, an issue whose effects are probably further reaching than their awareness. As a university, we have been seriously remiss in setting an example for students and instilling respect for books – and laws, for that matter. I do not think it is impossible to reverse this type of thinking: It’s okay to carry a $600 iPhone but unthinkable to buy a $50 book. In the past year, I have required my classes to purchase original books, and not without discussion. Sure enough, by week two of the semester, they all had an original book and they knew why. In addition, a fellow colleague who worked at Koc University in Istanbul witnessed similar problems until university policy was instated and commitment made to the publisher that all textbooks in the university would be original. After a few years of proving their seriousness, departments were readily provided with desk copies from publishers, resources became more abundant across the university, and even the Intensive English program was provided with free Corpus dictionaries for faculty and students.

As a university, we have been lazy and guilty participants in a hypocritical stance toward the value of the written word and the books that carry them. While upon entry to the university every student is obliged to take a horrid plagiarism test over and over until they pass, we are meters away from Malik’s bookstore, who would copy its soul and sell that if it could.

Our negligence on this issue is costing us and our students knowledge and valuable education. Our students are at one of the top American universities in the Middle East, which cannot even order an English textbook! The bottom line is this: As a university, we should have strict rules about requiring original books. Other universities in the area, such as LAU, have done so already. We should make it our business to bring this issue to the forefront and install strict policies; to encourage local universities to follow suit; to put pressure on places like Malik’s and eventually the government; and to educate our students on the effects of copyright infringements.

I do not see a better time than now – halfway through our term as the “Capital” and as street structures in honor of this title are being erected – to begin this process.

Thank you for taking the time to read. I hope together we can make progress on this urgent issue.

Sincerely…

________________________________________________________________________________

The following are the responses from (a fraction of ) AUB faculty who received the e-mail. I’ve left out their names.

1) Dear Rima

>> Yes indeed copyright infringements is serious but the issue you
>> emotionally raise in not that simple and accusing AUB faculty of  being
>> “lazy and guilty participants in a hypocritical stance toward the value
>> of the written word and the books that carry them” is going too far.
>> Some textbooks are outrageously priced and while few of my students can
>> afford to buy them, many cannot. Few of my students, if any (I don’t
>> usually examine the material worth of my students), carry $600 iPhones.
>>
>> I have often written to publishers advising them to reduce the price of
>> textbooks I am using so that my students do not have to resort to
>> photocopying (Several have responded favorably). When it comes to
>> textbooks and medicine royalty rights need to take into account the
>> income level of the end users.

______________________________________________________
2) I hate to jump in because I have had little experience with the problems
addressed in Rima’s initial email, but I did want to suggest that Lebanon,
like India (where I taught last year), has a serious problem with customs.
This is perhaps why sites like Amazon aren’t available here, or are
available through third party distributors–often taking a great deal of
time and adding additional costs to the purchase of books. Copyright
infringement is something I personally feel strongly about, but I often use
online resources when I find other books or resources unavailable. I have
been using the library database for particular articles in pdf form that I’m
able to upload to moodle. This form of dissemination seems ethically fine to
me, as these articles are already available, and paid for, through our
library. I know this doesn’t address Rima’s particular concerns regarding
textbooks, but customs could be a component behind the difficulty of getting
books here, and getting them on time. Just a thought —

________________________________________________________

3) I think your point is fair that publishers should reduce book prices. Perhaps this can be part of the process that I am “emotionally” proposing. However, you lobbying for lower prices on your own is not enough.  In any case, I do not buy the argument that AUB students cannot afford these books. And even if they are overpriced, it doesn’t mean we simply resort to photocopying. Anyway, with the way things are going, it looks like we eventually won’t have anything to photocopy! While online sources are great, we cannot be limited to them.

The attitude of blaming the other side is typical. We need to do something together.

Rima

_______________________________________________________

4) I don’t accept this emotional essay lecturing us on ethics and accusing us of being “lazy and guilty participants in a hypocritical stance toward the value of the written word and the books that carry them.”

[The first response writer’s] reply is exactly what I had in mind!

_____________________________________________________________

5) Unfortunately for such a problem I believe that AUB cannot do much beyond
instilling in the students’ minds the importance of copyright protection and
the ethical ramifications of copying a $100 USD book for 5000 L.L. If some
students would rather spend their money on a  cell phone or a 4 wheel drive
rather than a book, this is their choice and there is little we can do about
it. Also in this day and age, in some disciplines students (like in the
health sciences to which I belong) are led to believe that books are always
outdated and it is better to use electronic databases to get the latest
information.
I think policy at the level of the country, which is always a challenge,
needs to address the issue and get implemented. Malik is not the only one
that photocopies whole books; other places can get you any book that you
want photocopied. This practice must be banned altogether, but can we?
As for AUB, I do not know if the administration can communicate with
publishers to get a lower rate for our students.

____________________________________________________

>6) To [first response],
> Perhaps your students are a skewed representation of the student body
> at large, because AUB statistics
> (http://www.aub.edu.lb/faid/Pages/faq.aspx) show that 60% of all AUB
> undergraduate students receive no financial aid from the university,
> while the remaining 40% receive, on average, $3,523, with grants
> ranging from a few hundred dollars to a full tuition waiver. Given
> these statistics, it seems odd that only “few of [your] students can
> afford” to buy books, while most can afford school without financial
> aid. But again, perhaps your students are for one reason or another
> unrepresentative of the student body at large.
>
> Generally speaking (and especially compared to Lebanese society at
> large), the “end users,” seem to be doing all right. Anecdotally, in
> conversations with my students, most have told me that they can afford
> books but don’t see the point or value in buying them — they would
> rather spend that money on something else.
>
> But for those who can’t afford books, perhaps a simple solution to that
> would be for the financial aid department to start offering a book
> allowance to students who qualify for need-based financial aid, a
> common enough practice in other universities.
>
> Once we’ve made sure that everyone who can’t afford the books can get
> them through this allowance, it seems that a university-wide policy on
> using original books would make sense. Given that you have had such
> success in reducing the price of some of your textbooks in the past, it
> stands to reason that the university would collectively have even more
> success, representing considerably more leverage. Once students are
> obliged to buy the books, there will be considerably more used books to
> then be sold at the book store.
>
> As Rima has pointed out, this question is no longer a theoretical one.
> However we might feel about intellectual property rights, the rampant
> copyright infringement that routinely goes on here is starting to have
> concrete consequences that negatively affect our ability to do our
> jobs. Desk copies become fewer and further between, and in some cases
> publishers refuse to do business with AUB at all. It seems obvious to
> me that something needs to be done to remedy the problem, and if you or
> others have alternative constructive solutions, I for one am all ears.

___________________________________________________

7) I don’t normally respond to the AUB list emails, but feel compelled to
do so on this occasion in part because in the past I have researched the
area of intellectual property (IP) policies in developing countries;
and because there is clear (and hopefully not deliberate) obfuscation
coming from some faculty members (surprisingly in the English
department).

Rather than hectoring AUB faculty for being “irresponsible,” or writing
general statements without sufficient knowledge about the many debates
within the field of IP policy, it would be better to recognize that
there is plenty of controversy and gray zones with regards to the
merits and problems in all areas of IP (including copyrights and
patents). This is hardly a subject area that one can just write a good
vs evil essay, as some seem to be suggesting with their rhetoric about
‘taking stands’ on ‘moral’  issues. This is not simply a moral issue,
but a political one.

To suggest that “We cannot wait for our on-again-off-again
government to initiate  control over copyright infringements, an issue
whose effects are probably  further reaching than their awareness. As
a university, we have been  seriously remiss in setting an example for
students and instilling respect for books -and laws,” is really to
show an incredible lack of nuance on the highly politicized nature of
IP throughout the world (let alone Lebanon), the role of power, and
the role that we professors play in policing our students.

Are you aware, for instance, that Lebanon actually has an entire police unit
dedicated to nothing but going after small shop keepers who infringe
on copyright laws? Do you know that Lebanon has judges specifically
trained in the US to prosecute these same people? Do you know that
these are all US-funded projects that form part of the basket of
pre-requisitesbefore Lebanon is allowed to join the WTO? Do you really think that
the Lebanese authorities have conducted rigorous analyses of who gains and
loses when a country such as Lebanon strictly adheres to IP laws and
policies? Would it surprise you to know that the poorer and more
vulnerable communities are the ones more likely to suffer from such law enforcement?

Are you aware that the USA was the leading IP thief during its rise to
industrial power in the 19th C, they used to send spies to UK
factories to steal and copy technologies? Same thing with Korea and
many “Asian Tigers” in the post WWII era? The trend has always been
that countries infringe on IP laws until they become industrialized
and then they turn to wanting to protect these IPs as they have an actual interest to do so.

In Lebanon, Levant has a monopoly on purchase of and distribution of
many books and magazines: is this also the professor’s fault? Do you
think I should compel my international relations students to buy, for
example, the Foreign Affairs journal, which costs as low as $18 for a
year’s subscription in the USA (including use of its online databases)
and here Levant insists on pricing it at about LL 20,000 per copy? Do you
thinks its perfectly reasonable to require purchase of, say, a DVD
that costs a huge company 25 cents to produce at a cost of $25?
Shouldn’t we differentiate in our moral vigor between products
produced by small companies or  local artists, and those produced by
huge corporations that are making massive profits on prices that are
simply ridiculous? Is it really so black and white?

I do not mean to suggest that we should be encouraging students to
defy IP laws, not at all. Nor I am denying that some AUB students who
can afford to buy original books choose not do so (of course they do).

But I think the minimum we can do as  professors is to recognize that such matters are deeply contested  politically, intellectually, andmorally; and thus to avoid sweeping generalizations and moral sermons.

In short, lets not pretend that one can somehow separate the enforcement of copyright laws among AUB
students from the larger political, policy, and power issues in society.

In any case, to suggest that professors, on top of everything, have to
“educate our students about copyright infringement” (Orwell would be
proud of such language), police their students and open their book
bags to find out if they
have original textbooks is really taking things too far. Would you
suggest that, if I were to catch a student with a photocopied book, I
should call the police or lecture him or her about the virtues of
being a law-abiding citizen? Should we limit this only to copyright?
Why not also do the same to students who are unnecessarily loud (my
own pet peeve), or who use plastic bags which is bad for the
environment? What about those who use cars to come to AUB rather than
bike? Things must have really changed since I was an English major as
an undergraduate student (in the US) and English departments were
considered to be progressive rather than conservative hotspots!

The solution here is thus to separate the two issues at hand, one
moral the other practical. Lets do away with the sermons about how
good IP is for everyone and the call to policing our students; and
rather focus on finding a win-win solutions. The suggestion by Sean to
supplement students’ financial aid with money (or credit) to purchase
original books is a good, practical one. Another one is to have AUB
negotiate more reasonable prices for textbooks/DVDs/Software with key
publishers/companies. Another would be for the English department to
move away from using textbooks and focus on essays.

Finally, I would be remiss I did not at least mention to UNESCO ‘world
book capital’ remarks. Reducing UNESCO’s great heritage in cultural
and educational programs to the erection of silly monuments in this
city and enforcing copyright laws is to gravely misunderstand the
whole point of UNESCO.

____________________________________________________

8) Dear All,
First of all, I fail to see exactly what is wrong with “feeling”
strongly about an issue which is seriously hindering the performance
of our jobs as educators. It is calculated logic which precisely leads
our students to do the simple math, compare the price of the original
book and that of the copied, and then decide that they’d be doing the
smart thing by buying a copied version, thwarting all internationally
acclaimed intellectual property rights.
And, let’s just remember that it is the cold calculation of how to
increase bank accounts which has lead to the destruction of the
planet, and this is no emotional rant.

I also wonder whether our faculty members would be all too happy to
see their own publications, products of hard work and extensive
research, being copied,  and thus seeing their own intellectual
property being stolen.

Copyright infringements reflects a dangerous Lebanese attitude which
by being lenient towards we are only nurturing: the attitude that you
can break the rules and get away with it, that it’s OK not to
acknowledge the rights of the “other”. Obviously, the message which
our students are only too aware of is that one can get away with doing
anything in this country, no questions asked.

___________________________________________________

9) I’m really glad you have brought up this issue. The publisher refused
to ship the textbook I assigned for my class this fall. It seemed to
me that the only way to proceed was to tolerate and even unofficially
encourage illegal copies.

However, with respect to the debate, whether or not students can
afford to buy the books is irrelevant. The relevant question is what a
university-wide policy of using original books would accomplish, and
what exact form it would take. I don’t think that it possible in
practice to enforce a prohibition on illegal copying. I’m not even
convinced that successful prohibition really promote cooperation from
publishers.

__________________________________________________

10) I don’t either…But here’s just a vignette to ponder upon.
I wrote part of a medical book (by US publisher). It took me more than a
year to complete. I get a very modest royalty on each book sold ($1). [Of
course, the publisher makes >20x that]. My own medical students love the
book and they all own it but they have purchased the pirated copy
(apparently produced in a neighboring country). I am denied the royalty (and
the publisher is also shortchanged) but someone else, who is stealing and is
totally undeserving, is profiting from our students.

_____________________________________________________

11) Copyright is akin to censorship, it being the right to prevent others from distributing the work. Respect for the written word is something else.

US Code from http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/usc_sec_17_00000302—-000-.html
<http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/usc_sec_17_00000302—-000-.html> TITLE 17 > CHAPTER 3 > § 302. Duration of copyright: Works created on or after January 1, 1978
(a) In General.­ Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and, except as provided by the following subsections, endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death.

__________________________________________________________

12) Indeed, it is a process of building academic practices and values
for/with our students. Something like a person who boycotts a certain
company or cafe, for instance, because of its unethical foreign
policy. If I were such person, I’d know that the dollar or two that I
do not spend at this place may not turn its financial status upside
down, but at the end of the day, I am building certain values for
myself. In the same light, and as educators, I’d like to hope that the
policies we forward to our students are based on certain academic
values and practices.

_____________________________________________________

13) Dear colleagues,

It is facile to dismiss, as an emotional rant, Rima?s argument and
call for action regarding the prohibition of photocopied books in our
classrooms.

Rima?s argument is also trivialized when she?s told that the political
dimension of the issue she raises takes precedence over such
?practical? matters as choosing a textbook for one?s class.

The re-presentation of the issue in its political dimension has the
taste of a post-hoc rationalization.  Do we, at AUB, allow our
students to use photocopied books to fight against high textbook
prices imposed by the publishers/ distributors on the end user?  Are
we really doing it to take a political stance against unfair
intellectual property laws?  Are our students photocopying their
textbooks in protest, for the same suggested reasons?  In reality the
practice of using photocopied materials instead of original materials
for teaching has been going on for a long time; it predates
distributor monopolies, textbook outrageous price increases, as well
as our attempts at adhering to intellectual property laws.  Many of us
have been turning a blind eye to it simply because we can.  Perhaps it
is time for us to stop being complacent about it.

In fact, the problem is real: publishers are restricting our access
and our students? access to important tools for teaching/learning.
These restrictions, some of us (not only in the English Department)
think, are having a negative effect on our teaching.  Unfortunately,
the solution is not as simple as using essays instead of textbooks
(did you know that some essays have copyright fees going up to $500?);
nor can the solution be left up to each individual faculty member.
Before Rima can move to action, she needs the support of the
institution; hence, her message to the faculty list.

________________________________________________

14) [To response #7]

I’m not responding to this on the faculty list, because I don’t think
it really advances the discussion of the actual issue at hand: what
AUB’s policy is on photocopied books.

But I am responding, because I think there are a few points in your
message that should be addressed.

1. The Foreign Affairs example is a particularly poor one, since Jafet
subscribes to that journal, so unless you’re expecting them to read
every issue from cover to cover, you and your students are free to go
to the library and photocopy articles from that publication within the
bounds of fair use. A more apt example would be, for example, our
colleague Farid al-Khazen’s book on the breakdown of the state in
Lebanon, which is published by Harvard and lists at $71. (There are
plenty of other examples, especially from British publishers — IB
Tauris comes to mind.) Should students be expected to buy it at that
price? I don’t know, but I imagine that he might have an opinion or
two on the matter.

2. Your moralizing and generalizing is particularly unfortunate in an
email where you’re accusing our colleague Rima of “sweeping
generalizations and moral sermons.” Our department is a “conservative
hotspot”? Really? I teach in this department, and I would be hard
pressed to make such a gross characterization about the
progressiveness or conservatism of my dozens of colleagues. It’s
unfortunate that you’ve spent so much time impugning Rima and
ascribing to her Orwellian designs instead of engaging more on the
actual issue at hand. That sort of thing is frankly neither helpful
nor accurate,a nd I hope we can move past it.

3. The idea of not using textbooks and moving towards only using
essays is a possibility. It would presumably also affect many other
departments including your own. However, in my experience, it’s not
just the expensive textbooks that are being copied, but also paperback
novels that only cost $10-$15. (Students taking CS courses seem
particularly prone to this.) Also, this would preclude assigning
longer works in their entirety, which doesn’t affect the composition
courses so much but would be a big deal for many other classes in the
department.

4. As someone who spent several years working closely with (often in
the same office as) UNESCO’s copyright division, I can safely say that
copyright is an important part of the organization’s mandate. I would
remind you that the full name given to April 23, the day when the
world book capital’s mandate begins, is actually “World Book and
Copyright Day.” In fact, the Universal Copyright Convention was
drafted under UNESCO back in 1952.

I don’t claim to be a scholar of intellectual property law, and I
actually have very ambivalent feelings about copyright in general. In
certain cases and in certain contexts, I have a lot of sympathy for
the disregard of copyright. As you said, there’s a lot of grey area
there. But we’re not making internationl or even national policy here,
we’re making a decision about our students and the books we assign
them to read.

As it happens, in this case, I’m inclined to think that copyright
should be respected. My personal opinion on the matter, however, is
beside the point. The point is that as an institution, I feel that AUB
should make a decision one way or the other. Either photocopied books
are ok at AUB, or they’re not. In either case, we should be aware of
the consequences of such a decision, the most obvious and immediate of
which include being blacklisted by some publishers and not being able
to acquire certain books and higher book prices for students.

I think that Rima’s message got the ball rolling in that we are having
this discussion. I think that’s important. The question, then, is
where to now? If there’s a debate for and against the photocopied
books, it should be had. And AUB as an institution should try to draw
some conclusions from that discussion and act accordingly. At the end
of the day, though, what we have is a status quo that makes a policy
without actually stating it.

Perhaps a public debate on the issue would be helpful.

__________________________________________________

15) I also teach writing and composition, like Rima, and I, too, have been
extremely frustrated by the situation with textbooks for our students.  It
is hard for me to separate the political/moral from the practical issues
here.  In terms of intellectual property and current copyright law, there
are the inequities you [respondent #7] mention, (in a bit of a moralizing, sermonizing,
condescending tone, I might note).  On the other hand, I consider it to be
an injustice, a very immediate one, when our students are prevented from
accessing the huge range of rich resources that my students in the US had so
easily available to them.

We find ourselves in a vicious cycle.  If the bookstore orders texts for all
of my students, they get stuck with a huge stock that nobody buys, because
students go for the photocopies.  (One semester I ordered 450 books for one
course, and two semesters later, the bookstore had sold 36 of them.)  The
photocopy issue has been restricting the number of books the bookstore
can/will purchase, and now, apparently, new legal policies are further
restricting the books I am even able to order.  (Or photocopy, for that
matter.)  The way things are shaping up, I would say that options for me and
my students are shrinking, the local photocopy shops are raking in the
profits, and intellectual property policies seem to be getting worse, not
fairer.

The 2,000 students we teach every semester in our program really do need to
have, and deserve to have, excellent textbooks.  Giving them “articles” won’t
cut it when it comes to the complexities of many subjects.  Most teaching
faculty simply don’t have time to assemble an excellent set of teaching
materials for every course, every semester, and in any case, they aren’t
really being paid for a huge extra project like that, especially if they are
part-time instructors.    In fact, we have already edited a custom published
reader that at least brings together essays that are relevant reading for
students in our educational context (addressing the problem of
America-centric themes and readings in most commonly available books), and
that was a big, time-consuming project.  But if we were to compose really
good texts for most of the things students need to know, that would be an
even larger project, and I’m not sure it would be any cheaper for the
students.  And again, how would that really do anything to change the IP
situation?  If there is a good textbook out there that will do the job, I
want my students to have it.

The questions of intellectual property and copyright infringement are
problematic and complex, but they need to be dealt with on the level of a
legal/intellectual debate and political negotiation, and hopefully on an
academic level, too–in classroom discussions, for example.  You can’t
really think that when students buy photocopied texts, the important
questions of intellectual property and copyright infringement are being
contested in a meaningful way.  Do you?  And yes, I do think we can
responsibly take a stance, and ask students to buy original texts, without
“policing” them, as you suggest, especially if we have means to support
students who can’t afford the books, and of making used books available.

5 Responses to “Beirut: “World Book Capital””

  1. Katie says:

    You have sparked quite the conversation!

  2. Gabrielle Rantisi says:

    I think this letter sparked a great debate. In Lebanon it seems that we pride ourselves on cheating the system. I am a mother who is very proud of her daughter. Keep up the good work Rima. Better education starts with people like you.

    Love you.

  3. Tara says:

    As a former AUB student, I feel that the best solution is for the AUB library to buy several copies of every textbook for students who cannot afford to buy them. That’s how I got through AUB – but the library sometimes did not have copies. And if I really liked the book and felt like I would want to read it again, I’d buy it.

  4. Tara says:

    And I am tired of reading foreign textbooks. I think it’s time that AUB uses Arab-written textbooks.

  5. Just landed on this post via Google research. I love it. This post switch my perceptual experience and I am getting the RSS feeds. Cheers.

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