June 3, 2012
-- In a significant decision, the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences found that a “web-based system” is statutory. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued patent #8195571 on 5 June 2012 to Joseph Henry Vogel, Professor of Economics at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras. The invention prevents piracy and enables publishers to receive payment when textbooks are resold. Broad adoption of the system raises the possibility of a single platform across universities for all textbooks.
Textbook publishers are in an existential crisis. A survey conducted at the University of California-Riverside found that 74 percent of the students did not purchase any textbook. Publishers also compete against themselves in a used-book market increasingly nimble due to the internet. In 2007, Vogel met with Pat Schroeder, then president of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) to discuss his web-based system. Schroeder believed that copyright software protection, known as digital rights management (DRM), would alleviate the problem. Today hackers crack DRMs in record time and legal recourse seems hopeless. According to Tom Allen, current President of the AAP, “[f]or every rogue site that is taken down, there are hundreds more demanding similar effort. I can’t think of a more timely example of the need for additional tools…”
In Vogel’s system, publishers issue licenses free of charge to professors who cite a trademarked textbook in their syllabus. The license has two conditions: the course must require that students participate in a Discussion Board and the participation must count toward the final grade. With the purchase of a textbook, the student receives an access code to enter the Board. In the case of a used book or pirated download, the student pays for the access code. No payment – no access code – no participation – lower final grade.
The patent recognizes that the system diminishes the freedom of professors to design courses. To offset that impact, “a percentage of the students' purchases [will be distributed]
who enhance academic freedom. In effect, textbooks that bear PRINCIPIIS OBSTA – the trademark for the web-based system – will underwrite academic freedom through the royalties paid by publishers. Vogel is passionate about academic freedom and doubts he would have undertaken his own controversial scholarship without the academic freedom that tenure affords.
With more than twenty-five years of teaching experience, Vogel wonders about the future of textbooks in a world of piracy. The young Paul A. Samuelson only decided to write ECONOMICS (now in its 19th edition) after his wife gave birth to triplets, enlarging his family to seven children. Vogel’s system maintains incentives for the best and brightest to write textbooks that may become canonical.
The timeline of the patent speaks volumes about the nature of intellectual property protection. The idea occurred to Vogel in June 2006 over a three-week road trip in the American Rockies. He sketched the flow diagrams furiously, worried that informatics-
savvy educators were converging on the same idea. By August, he had engaged the law firm DLA Piper of California, which he admired for its pro bono work on behalf of vulnerable communities. On 7 September 2006, DLA partner Tim Lohse filed the application with the USPTO and exercised the option to apply in the other 99 jurisdictions of the Patent Cooperation Treaty. However, the option expired in 2009, three years before the patent was finally issued. As a result, the system is open-access outside the US.
Yet Vogel sees a silver lining in the loss of the overseas market. Experimentation abroad will accelerate acceptance at home. Anthem Press of London has expressed interest.