There are a few differences between Mark's copy of Principles of Electric Machin es and P ower Electronics and the one most engineering students buy from the campus bookstore.
For one thing, Mark's copy has a soft cover, and the paper quality suggests the book won't last much longer than the one-semester course it's required for. There's also a prominent warning label on the cover that states: "Restricted! For sale only in Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam."
Also, the legitimate copy costs about $140. Mark, a Queen's University engineering student who asked that his real name not be used, bought his copy on-line for $40.
"It has a poor-quality cover and pages, but you're only using it for two or three months, so it doesn't matter," he said.
Like a growing number of Canadian university students, Mark is the beneficiary of a unique, albeit controversial, byproduct of the intersection of globalization, technology and entrepreneurship.
Looking to cash in on the skyrocketing number of postsecondary students in developing nations such as India and Pakistan, many major North American publishers have launched regional subsidiaries in other parts of the world, offering many of the same titles available in the United States and Canada.
However, since the average standard of living in developing nations is usually far lower than in North America, students simply can't afford to pay $100 or more for a physics or calculus textbook. In order to serve the market and still turn a profit, publishers will often print "international" or "low-cost" editions on low-quality paper, forgoing extras such as colour and a hard cover.
For pure-math, science and engineering textbooks, there's often no difference in content between North American and international editions. The goal, according to publishers, is to provide students in developing countries with the same kind of educational tools as their North American counterparts.
But because of the soaring popularity of on-line marketplaces, those books are finding their way to Canada, allowing students to save hundreds of dollars on their yearly textbook bills, but also saddling Canadian publishers with a variation of the problems the Internet has unleashed on the movie and music industries.
A sampling of just how much students can save by purchasing international editions on-line can be found by looking through some of the listings on Abebooks, a popular Vancouver-based web portal that functions as a sort of books-only eBay. For example, the website lists a few dozen copies of the engineering textbook Digital Integrated Circuit Design by Ken Martin. Most new copies range in price from $60 (U.S.) to about $160. A few used copies of the North American edition go for about $30. New copies of the latest international edition start at about $5.
"It's pretty frustrating, when you think that everyone down the line had to make a profit on this thing," Mark said. "I bet it cost three bucks to print."
But Canadian publishers are quick to point out that charging developing-world prices in Canada simply isn't financially feasible.
"Some students will complain, 'Why can't I pay the same price [as in places such as India and Pakistan],' " said Bill Zerter, chief operating officer of John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd.
"But if all textbooks were to sell for the same price as they do in Pakistan, then forget it, no one would publish anything."
The growing popularity of purchasing international editions on-line comes at a time when Canadian publishing groups have stepped up their battle against traditional methods of avoiding textbook costs, which are higher now than ever before. Recently, Access Copyright, the Canadian copyright licensing agency, filed a lawsuit against stores in Toronto that photocopied entire textbooks for students. The resulting judgment imposed hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines on the store owners.
"Essentially, they were reprinting textbooks," said Roanie Levy, Access Copyright's director of legal and external affairs. "Students can't just take something without paying because they feel the price [of the regular textbook]is too high."
Legally, students can purchase international editions. While regulations in the Copyright Act prohibit the bulk import of such books for resale in Canada, there are exceptions for anyone who buys up to two copies of a book for personal use.
But there are other downsides to purchasing international editions. Books can take several weeks to arrive, and many sellers have dubious reputations and return policies. There is also little chance of getting an adequate book in a field outside pure math, science and engineering, since the content of liberal arts and other textbooks is usually tailored to the specific region.
Still, for some Canadian students, who can spend more than $1,000 on books in a year, international editions are a preferable alternative. And for the time being, there's not much Canadian publishers can do to stop them.
"Publishers aren't going to go out and prosecute students who buy books on-line," Mr. Zerter said. "It's not our plan and there's no law against it, anyway."