A poster at Mobile Read alerted me to this shocking story from Inside Higher Ed, about a new textbook rental program. The article warns of a clause in the textbook rental fine print that restricts users renting through Amazon’s Warehouse Deals, Inc, from moving the textbook out of the state in which it was initially purchased.

From the article:Amazon

“At first glance, the restriction doesn’t seem to make much sense. But to those who have been following Amazon’s aggressive efforts to avoid charging state and local sales tax, the reasoning behind it becomes clearer. Kenneth C. (Casey) Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, theorizes that the restriction is a kind of ‘Mann Act’ strategy (a law that made it illegal to transport women across state lines for ‘immoral’ purposes) intended to minimize the company’s nexus — or physical presence — in states where the company is fighting the efforts of state and local authorities to collect sales tax.”

If so, Amazon is seeking to make potential criminals out of millions of students who may be engaging in perfectly legal behavior. I myself went to a university with a massive out-of-towner population, and it would be perfectly plausible that a student would “cross state lines” with their books for perfectly innocent reasons.

Let’s say you buy a textbook for one of your university classes and then you go home to see your parents over the Thanksgiving or Christmas break. You can’t bring the book with you to study on the train? Really?

More distressingly, if Amazon does detect that you’ve violated this policy, the fine print says that they can, at their discretion, charge you for the full purchase price of the book. Inside Higher Ed gives the example of a chemistry book which rents for $54.58 and sells at full price for of $150.49. “If Amazon discovers that the student violated the rental terms and conditions by moving the book out of Pennsylvania, the student could be charged the $96 difference,” they point out.

I understand that content providers need to make a profit, and I don’t oppose paying for content myself, or asking students to pay for it. But I do think that legal users who pay should be entitled to reasonable fair use of the content they pay for.

If you want to pay less for a rental and have it expire when the term is over, fair enough. If you want to pay more and own it outright, fair enough too. But I think there has to be some common sense worked into the equation. A student in State A whose parents live in State B would have a perfectly non-criminal reason for “crossing state lines” with his books and he should be allowed to do that.

After all, they can certainly do so with physical goods—we had to rent a car last year when ours was damaged in an accident, and all the rental car company cared about was that we paid for all the days we had it. They didn’t ask a thing about where we took it, or what we did while we were there.


  1. The original article is focused on renting physical textbooks where students only have to avoid returning textbooks from another state. Renting digital textbooks might be a horse of a different color. What if the digital textbook phones home every so often?
    So, a student rents a paper textbook for a semester for $54.58 where full purchase price is $150.49. Three rentals covers the full price so every rental after that is 100% profit, no?
    Another textbook company says that, “rental is the new used.” I don’t think so.

  2. I have lived in areas where people travel across state lines to commute to college. Living near NYC, there are people who might go to small colleges in North Jersey or vice versa. In South Jersey, there may be people who go to school Philadelphia. Crossing these state lines isn’t a big deal and people do it every day in commutes.

  3. I took a look at Amazon’s web page on Kindle eTextbooks here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1001297481&ref=txb_etext_button

    One thing that struck me right away is how they use the words “rent” and “buy.” Rent seems to mean what most of us would think the term means, non-transferable, time-limited access. Interestingly, your notes persist after the rental period but everything else ceases to be available. Use of the term “buy” seems to be doublespeak for “non-transferable access for your lifetime.”

    Both of these are conditioned on our good behavior in following Amazon’s corporate dictates. Not quite the same as constraints on our behavior dictated by constitutions and statutes ratified by our elected representatives.

    It’s a very interesting shift from democratically determined rules of conduct to privately determined rules of conduct.

  4. After reading through the links above, it sounds as if you return the book from the state to which it was originally shipped, you are ok. As to where you read the book while you have it, there would seem to be no way for them to know unless they have Book Police on the trains or planes between two states.

  5. “As to where you read the book while you have it, there would seem to be no way for them to know unless they have Book Police on the trains or planes between two states”

    I’m sure there’s some way they can be tracked. All of these books probably have RFID or similar things in them. All you have to do is walk by an RFID reader that Amazon or one of their agents can access, with the book in your possession, and they know where it is. Not to be alarmist or anything…

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