Thursday, September 20, 2007

Harvard Coop Considers ISBN Numbers to Be Their Own "Intellectual Property"

In the last few weeks, I've read what seems like dozens of articles from around the country that complain about the high cost of college textbooks and how little is offered for their repurchase by college bookstores. The articles all point out that students are required to spend hundreds of dollars on books each semester and that university bookstores face little, if any, competition when it comes to making those books available to students.

That's all starting to change now that more and more online sites are making the books available to students at discounted prices in direct competition with university bookstores. Naturally, the university bookstores are not happy about loosing what was a near monopoly position for so many years, but the new competition is definitely a good thing for college students and their parents.

University bookstores are going to have to adapt and find ways to compete with the online booksellers. No doubt about it. But at Harvard, the Coop seems to have slipped into panic mode instead of looking for legitimate ways to compete for the business of Harvard students.
Jarret A. Zafran ’09 said he was asked to leave the Coop after writing down the prices of six books required for a junior Social Studies tutorial he hopes to take.

“I’m a junior and every semester I do the same thing. I go and look up the author and the cost and order the ones that are cheaper online and then go back to the Coop to get the rest,” Zafran said.

“I’m not a rival bookstore, I’m a student with an I.D.,” he added.

Coop President Jerry P. Murphy ’73 said that while there is no Coop policy against individual students copying down book information, “we discourage people who are taking down a lot of notes.”

The apparent new policy could be a response to efforts by—an online database that allows students to find the books they need for each course at discounted prices from several online booksellers—from writing down the ISBN identification numbers for books at the Coop and then using that information for their Web site.

Murphy said the Coop considers that information the Coop’s intellectual property.
Claiming that ISBN identification numbers are "intellectual property" seems to be a bit of a stretch, something that will probably have to be decided by lawyers if the Coop decision is challenged. But even if the Coop's contention about the numbers is shown to be incorrect, I would have to believe that they still can make the business decision not to allow customers to copy the numbers. If Coop management wants to risk the bad publicity and alienation of its customers, that's something they have the right to do.

Students, on the other hand, have the right to find the best deal on books available to them. Something like this incident is likely to make sure that more Harvard students do that than ever before.


  1. Specific prices set by a store may be considered that store's intellectual property, but if ISBNs can be considered anyone's IP, they would belong to the publisher who buys those ISBNs in bulk. It would be doubtful (I would think) that one could in fact call an ISBN intellectual property in any situation, because as identifiers assigned to a specific work, they are statements of fact.

    Of course, I'm not a lawyer, so I could be mistaken but I think I'm in the right ball park.

  2. What you say makes sense to me, Jill, as another non-lawyer, of course.

  3. The prices wouldn't be intellectual property of the store, I would think, unless they have no relation to the MSRP (since that's set by the publisher), which says something in itself.

    I find this particularly fascinating as this is where I used to buy my textbooks.

  4. Ridiculous. Harvard's bookstore is cuttin off its nose to spite its face.

  5. If Harvard can patent a living creature, I'm sure claiming ISBN's as intellectual property will be a breeze.

  6. I am so envious of today's college students -- they can get books cheaper, it is a million times easier to edit a paper, and they don't have to wait until after 11:00 pm to make long-distance calls!

  7. Heather, it sure seems like a misguided way to try to protect market share...very poor management decision at some level.

  8. Sherry, I agree. This will probably cost them more business than it saves them.

    John - they ARE a smart bunch, aren't they? :-)

    Factotum - It's a whole different world, isn't it? I hate to admit it but I remember having to go to a "lab" to use an electric calculator when I was in college...they were so new and so large that no student could afford one and they weren't allowed inside a classroom anyway.