Price Check

Textbook renegades trying to find ISBN numbers encounter resistance -- and attract the police -- in Harvard bookstore.
September 25, 2007

It wouldn't have made the most gripping episode of "COPS." Cambridge police officers late last week responded to a call from a historic bookstore about three Harvard University students who refused to leave. They were ... writing down identification numbers of textbooks with the intention of sharing that information with the public.

And now, the principal players are at odds about the root of the spat. The students, two of whom are behind a Web site that allows visitors to compare book costs, say the bookstore wants to prevent them from amassing a database of ISBN numbers. Jerry P. Murphy, president of the Harvard Coop, says the case is about students disrupting the flow of business in his store.

When the Harvard students created the Web site, Crimson Reading, more than a year ago, the idea was to provide students an easy way to compare prices of texts sold at the Coop with those sold through online sites such as Amazon and eCampus.

Some students have contributed to the site by jotting down the identification numbers of books they see -- and often buy -- at the store.

Jon Staff, director of the site, said that since the bookstore began cracking down on ISBN trackers earlier this semester, students have complied with the Coop's requests to stop or leave. Last week's episode began when he and the two other students didn't follow that direction.

The trio was still copying book numbers when an officer arrived on the scene. What happened next is a point of contention. Staff said the officer who came to the bookstore left after speaking with an employee or manager and without talking to the students, who continued their note taking. James DeFrancesco, a police spokesman, said the students left shortly after the police arrived. No charges were filed.

According to Staff, his conversation with a store employee was about the morality and legality of copying the ISBN numbers. The bookstore's argument, he said, had come down to ownership of the information.

“This sheds light on the intellectual property debate," Staff said. "Everyone realizes that ISBN numbers are facts that cannot be copyrighted.”

Jonathan Band, a lawyer who deals with technology law and policy, says that although the store, under state property laws, has the right to control what people do within its premises, "the notion that they have an intellectual property right in this case is just wrong."

Murphy, who was not on hand during last week's dispute, said he has never claimed the ISBN numbers were the store's intellectual property, but that the list of titles given to the bookstore by professors is "an asset of ours."

"We don't have a policy against writing down numbers, but we do have a policy against disrupting the course of business," he said. "If groups take up space and prevent others from shopping, it can be grounds [for ejection]."

The students don't dispute that the Coop has the right to set its own in-store conduct policies, but they vehemently deny that they were getting in anyone's way.

Adam Goldenberg, a Web site staff member who was one of the three students asked to leave the bookstore, said that Murphy is contradicting himself about the store's policy. The Coop president was quoted in a Harvard Crimson article saying that "we discourage people who are taking down a lot of notes."

Murphy reiterated his stance on students writing down information and said he isn't trying to stifle the Web site.

"Students have and always will take down information," he said. "We know they do this, and they should if they are unclear about what they want. From our point of view, we offer convenience to students and easy returns, but students should look around. We have a mission to serve the students, and the university has had faith for years that we fulfill this mission."

But Goldenberg said the Coop's practice of preventing people from gathering the ISBN numbers is hurting students. The site no longer makes it a regular practice of including the Coop's book price on the Web site, he said, because that information is too hard to gather.

"We have no problem with Coop; we do our own book shopping there," Goldenberg said. "We think they have unjustifiably high prices on some titles, but Harvard students should have the chance to check for themselves. Coop only stands to benefit from their own customer base knowing the prices, because sometimes they do have the lowest price."

Crimson Reading has recorded at least $34,000 in total revenue this semester by routing students to other online vendors, which give the site a portion of the proceeds. Staff said all profits go to a charity benefiting Zambia.

The advent of e-commerce sites has no doubt hurt business at college book stores, which rely heavily on recouping costs of obtaining books. Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Association of College Stores, declined to comment on the Harvard case, saying the store is a member.

Jarret Zafran, one of the students who refused to leave, said the students intended -- and still intend -- to test the store's policies. Other Harvard students have already promised to continue tracking down the ISBN numbers in future semesters, he said.

"This is about free enterprise," said Zafran, who isn't affiliated with the Crimson Reading site. "I don’t debate their right to charge what they want. The problem is when they try to gouge students and crack down on the competition they do face from online sites.”

But both Staff and Goldenberg said the objective isn't to get into a knock-down drag-out with the bookstore. As it stands, Harvard faculty provide their book lists from their syllabuses directly to the store. The students' hope is that the university would consider providing a centralized database open to everyone so that information on book titles and numbers is made available earlier.

The students say they have floated the idea to the university to no avail, but a Harvard spokesman said he is unaware of any such proposal.

"The administration is inclined not to rock the boat with its long-term relationship with the Coop, which we think disadvantages students," Goldenberg said.


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