When I started my undergraduate degree in 1998, seeing a laptop in class was an anomoly.  By the time I finished law school eight years later, I heard professors complain about never seeing their students’ faces and identifying the active students by the brand of their computer.

No more pencils.  No more papers.  Years of education contained in a single hard-drive.  I have all the notes from every class I took in law school on a USB key.  The one thing that always struck me as redundant was the textbooks – awkward, clumsy and expensive.  My policy each semester was to buy a textbook (preferrably a used one) and then resell it at the beginning of the next semester.  But that could all change. 

Digital textbooks – better known as “e-texbooks” -  have made their mark south of the border and there is a growing trend among Canadian campuses to consider making them available as a lighter and less expensive alternative to traditional textbooks.  A recent article in University Affairs highlights how this is playing out.

Two years ago, Concordia University became the first Canadian university to offer e-textbooks to its students (see this article from the Concordia Journal explaining the process).  The arrangement is similar to iTunes: a student will pay to get a limited use digital version of a textbook, and the licence to use it expires after six months.  The university itself becomes the supplier.

This introduces a new intellectual property relationship for universities.  There have been no reports of brewing legal battles between publishers, authors, educational institutions or students regarding the process of sale.  But it is important to ensure educational institutions are not accepting an increased risk of liability by agreeing to act, effectively, as a retailer for e-textbooks.  New technologies often introduce some element of legal uncertainty, and particularly in a difficult economy legal problems are better prevented than treated.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!