Course Packs Go Digital

After years of explosive growth, the course pack business has veered into the digital world, with revenue and legal implications for course pack producers and college bookstores.

The course pack business has been running at full tilt for more than 10 years, says Kathy Eshelman, president of Grade A Notes of Columbus, Ohio. Today, more and more course pack materials are showing up on line in digital form. Grade A Notes started out in 1987 as a service that provided printed course notes and customized course packs for students. From her long-term vantage point, Eshelman senses that the printed course pack business may have peaked.“A lot of course packs are now being put on line,” Eshelman says.

Coursepacks Are Here to Stay

Ed Schlichenmayer agrees. As vice president of industry services with the National Association of College Stores (NACS), Schlichenmayer suspects that printed course packs peaked about four years ago. Since then, professors have been moving toward digital on-line course packs.

Schlichenmayer points out that course packs themselves won’t disappear.“Course packs offer dynamic current content that makes courses come alive,” he says. “But we have seen total sales of printed course packs begin to decline in college bookstores as digital formatting has grown in popularity.”

Companies such as XanEdu, a division of ProQuest Information and Learning are driving the shift to digital course packs. “XanEdu is the leader and original creator of digital course packs for the national marketplace,” says David Prichard, senior vice president for global sales with ProQuest Information and Learning, a division of the ProQuest Company of Ann Arbor.

According to the XanEdu web site, the company is second only to the Library of Congress in digital content offerings. Nearly 1,000 colleges and universities, now rely on XanEdu course packs, both print and digital. XanEdu also offers print-digital hybrid course packs with some materials available print and others in digital form.

But print is a stubborn format. “Some professors prefer print course packs,” Eshelman says. “As a result, print course packs won’t go away over night.”

Schlichenmayer agrees with that assessment but also notes that as more course packs move from print to digital formatting, the business model for course materials in college stores will change. “I don’t know how or to what extent bookstore businesses will change,” he says. “Print course packs will continue to provide a revenue stream for college stores, but it will be lower as some course packs shift to digital formats.”

Copyright Issues

Digital technology may also begin to affect how copyright issues are handled in the course pack industry. Whether digital or print, course pack materials must still have appropriate permission from publishers to use copyrighted materials, a process widely handled through the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), a consortium set up by publishers to speed clearances.

Over the past decade a number of notable legal cases, including Basic Books vs. Kinko’s and Princeton University Press vs. Michigan Document Services, established copyright procedures for course pack producers and users. What’s new is the possibility that the shift to digital materials may eventually drive the course pack business toward large national suppliers with deep pockets.

Copyright law has always posed great challenges to course pack providers. Mark Twain once said: “Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”

Complex (as well as simple) copyright issues have put numerous course pack producers out of business over the years in lawsuits alleging copyright infringement. Such lawsuits can affect any organization within the chain of commerce that sold materials without obtaining appropriate copyright clearances. According to experts, college bookstores selling course packs regularly find themselves on the hook for mistakes made by their course pack providers.

Large companies with existing databases of materials already cleared for use can not only speed the process of assembling course packs, they can protect users from legal issues related to copyright infringement.

Maintaining a Database

XanEdu, for example, maintains an existing database of more than 20,000 periodicals and magazines, 7,000 newspapers, 150,000 books — a total of 5.5 billion pages of information spanning 500 years of scholarship. By and large, these materials have received appropriate copyright permissions for use in course packs.

More important, when XanEdu assembles course packs from these or from new materials, the company not only clears the copyrights, it also indemnifies bookstores and users against copyright infringement questions that may arise.

Most small course pack operations will not have the resources to maintain huge databases of cleared materials for swift course pack assembly. Nor will they have the financial resources to indemnify users against potential infringement claims.

While nothing has yet been set in stone, as the move toward digital course pack materials proceeds, it will begin to change the way college and university bookstores deal with this important segment of business.