Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Textbook Dilemma

A serious problem plaguing the Philippine education system is the lack of books and textbooks. Most students simply can't afford to purchase them or are unwilling to devote funds to legally obtain them. I mention the latter part because one of the more serious violators of copyright infringement is happening in the Philippines: the photocopying of books. In the Philippines where the quality of life isn't as "convenient" or "luxurious" as the West, the more prevalent mode of book piracy aren't eBooks and illegally downloaded documents but the photocopying of books and textbooks.

There are, of course, a lot of factors contributing to this phenomena. One is the fact that a lot of Filipinos aren't rich--most of them are suffering from poverty. Photocopying is a simple and cheap means to replicate a book. In a way, the local textbook industry has somehow adjusted to this. I mean in my seventeen years of education, I've seen science books in black and white printed on newsprint. This isn't necessarily bad if done correctly but the problem is that they're simply reproductions of more expensive, colored science books. The charts become unreadable, references to color that's simply cannot be distinguished, etc.

The other fact is that it wasn't always illegal to photocopy a book for "educational" purposes. Back during the Marcos regime, it was legal to do so. And I'm not condemning the government back then for instituting such a policy--in the short term, it seemed like the best solution to solve the poverty and illiteracy dilemma of the nation. Were foreign publishers happy? Probably not. But the political climate has changed and the present government has to appease a lot of external (and I really mean international) forces.

I'm not directly condemning photocopying--it is a cheap and effective method of distributing media. The problem is it's a short term solution--disregarding laws (and in this case, copyright laws) is disruptive in the long run. And if I have any complaints against the Philippines, it's that we always turn to short-term solutions instead of long term ones. So now we've made a long term decision to enforce copyright law but enforcing it is another problem. And the problem with humans (and not just Filipinos) is that it's harder to give up something we're used to or feel is a "right" even when that's not necessarily the case.

Perhaps what's shocking is that while the textbook photocopying is a solution for the impoverished, it's not only who take advantage of it. I'm not by any means impoverished. If I gave my family an honest assessment, we're in the upper middle-class or lower upper-class income bracket. I went to Ateneo de Manila University for my college degree and it's not exactly an impoverished university (and while you might argue we have scholars and working students, for the most part, a lot of the university's students are well-to-do). Yet textbook photocopying is still rampant here. In fact, it is in universities that these micro-photocopying industry thrives. I mean one can only photocopy so many hand-outs and notebooks--a good chunk of what's being photocopied are books, especially in the university library.

Of course looking back, purchasing books legally instead of photocopying them might have easily cost as much as my tuition. I mean I took this one literature class over the summer and it cost me half of what I'm earning right now to acquire all the necessary books I need (the class was "Ten Books of the Century"). The other problem I faced, aside from the acquiring the funds to purchase all those books, was finding the books themselves. I think the local bookstore landscape has changed in the past few years for the better but four years ago, it wasn't so easy to find Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Castle by Franz Kafka. And that was just one class. How much more for a student who has multiple classes?

Again, this might not be so much of a big issue in the West but it is a dilemma with no immediate viable solutions. We're a third-world country buying first-world books. What probably caught me off-guard was my friend asking for a Demonoid account, not to download porn (which I expect from him) but to acquire medical books (for one reason or another, whether it's out of his budget or out of circulation locally).

The one solution I see that will make books and textbooks accessible to the masses are eBooks, but that must be quantified. Right now the biggest barrier to eBooks is the fact that you need an expensive device to read them and the industry is doing little to remedy this. What does one need to read an eBook? A computer, a PDA, an eBook reader--all of which are expensive, even if the eBooks themselves might be sold cheap (or even free in the case of illegal downloads). It's simply not a viable alternative as it is.

What hurts the most is probably the fact that this shouldn't be the case. The industry can follow the loss-leader business model. Or simply create a functional but featureless eBook reader that will cost under $20.00. It doesn't even need to run Mac OS X, I'd be happy with Dos. But it seems that people are dazzled by things like the iPod and PDAs and the like. What irks me about Filipinos is that they'll somehow manage to scrounge up enough money to buy a mobile phone but not food for their family for the day and such.

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