If you haven’t already read Nick Robinson’s excellent post on ELTjam about book piracy and the lively conversation it’s started, go check it out. To sum it up, just about every ELT textbook that’s ever been published (including mine) have been ripped off by pirates and put on innumerable free PDF download sites all over the Internet. I’m obviously not going to link to those sites, and if I were you I wouldn’t visit them or ever download things from them. Baby Jesus is watching.

The conversation on the original post has branched off in many directions: Is piracy really that bad? Is copyright law generally a moral thing? Are authors totally screwed? And so on. One thing I think hasn’t been addressed fully is what we can do to limit piracy or make it work for us. Expanding on suggestions I’ve made in comments on the original post, why can’t some of these things be done?

1. If people really want to download PDFs of ELT print textbooks, why don’t more big publishers sell PDF downloads on their sites? At this time I don’t think any of them do. If the price is reasonable, you could at least get sales from people who would be willing to pay if they could get the product right away.

2. To make that happen, publishers need to up their SEO and e-commerce game. I’m sorry if this seems critical, but it’s true. Google searches for terms like “Headway free download” should return the publisher’s site as the #1 result, or at least in the first page of results. And then, once you get to the publisher site, you should be able to click to make a purchase, either the print book or some kind of download. Right now this is actually not possible on some publisher sites. There are even publisher sites that are so hard to navigate that you can type in the book title (or even ISBN!) and not get to the book’s product page.

3. There are too many places in the world where people cannot buy the books that I’ve written. China is just one example of this. I study Chinese online, and I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked where they can go in China (physically or online) to buy my books, and I have to tell them they’re unavailable. Then they will invariably next ask where they can “download” the books. The point is that they are willing to buy them, but can’t. I’m not justifying piracy by any means, but what other choice do these students have?

I realize there are good reasons why textbooks are not available in some markets. In China, for example, foreign publishers need to partner with a local publisher and also need to scrub the book for inappropriate content and then produce some sort of “mainland only” cover to keep it from being reimported into Taiwan. I get that this process takes time and money, and that many people will still buy the cheaper pirated version anyway. But you can’t complain much if you don’t even offer the option of legitimately purchasing the product. Interchange has a China-only edition that sells millions of copies (literally millions) at a very low price. It can be done.

4. Piracy reveals interesting opportunities that not all publishers are fully exploiting. Here’s what I mean by that. Coursebooks are meant to be used in a classroom with a teacher. Those classes are expensive, and the cost of the coursebook is very frequently bundled into that price. If a person is downloading the coursebook because they’re unable or unwilling to buy the genuine book, it’s highly unlikely that they are shelling out for classes in a language school. So they’re stealing from the author and publisher, of course, but they’re also using a product that is not really meant to be used for individual self-study and won’t help them much.

What they need, and would perhaps be willing to buy at the right price, is content that helps them learn even though they’re not in a class. Unfortunately, until recently the big publishers have not really had these users on their radar. Instead, they’ve only focused on big coursebooks and big adoptions from schools that charge for pricey classes. In other words, the publishers have only engaged with English learners who are willing to learn in the most expensive way possible: by paying tuition and buying print books. If you are not willing or able to sign up for English classes at Wall Street English or wherever, the big publishers have not had a lot to offer. This is changing now, which is good, but in the meantime that gap was filled by competing companies (e.g., Global English, Duolingo, etc.), but also by pirates.

5. Publishers need to do more to bundle print textbooks with online extras, like user accounts and community tools, that can’t easily be pirated. The Macmillan Skillful course that I helped write does a good job of this. Every printed book has a unique user access code on the back that you can use to access the “digibook” — an online version of the book with integrated audio and lots of cool features and extras. Because every book has a unique code, a pirated book won’t get you this access. Skillful is certainly not the first or only series to do this, but I think that if we are serious about limiting piracy then all the books need to have features like this.

Another thing you can’t pirate is community. A site like Facebook could be cloned, and a lot of its source code could probably be directly pirated, but what would be the point? All of your friends and family are on real Facebook, not pirate Facebook. In the same way, publishers need to do more to tie the purchaser of each book to an unique account that brings them into a community site. This could be a place to share resources, to practice conversation, to discuss readings from the book, etc. And you can only get into the community if you’ve bought the book. This would of course cost money to do, but it amazes me that nothing like this exists. How many millions of people use Interchange? And yet as far as I know there is still no Interchange community site, not even a simple user’s forum or message board.

Got any other ideas? I’d love to hear them!

Mike S. Boyle is one of the authors of American English File. You can follow him on Twitter at @heyboyle.

Featured Photo Credit: Free Grunge Textures – www.freestock.ca via Compfight cc. Text added by ELTjam.


  1. Well, it’s a generalisation of course but maybe the fundamental problem with ELT books is prospective buyers don’t really want them? Coursebooks are sold to teachers and DOSes at private language schools and state schools. But it’s students who are to pay for them and they don’t really have a say which coursebook to choose, and so are more or less forced to shell out money for books they may not even like. These books are not very useful for them as self-study material, so they might see this expense as forced on them and therefore are looking to ‘minimise’ this expense by downloading a pdf and, possibly, printing it out, or making a xerox copy from a friend.

    Students may not be able to see what value exactly a coursebook offers or may fail to see the connection between the money spent on a book and the progress they make. I’d guess that most ‘piracy’ of this kind happens in state schools, it’s probably much less in PlS because students there tend to be better motivated and they will see the value in getting a coursebook? I would also guess that people are more likely to pay for an exam preparer than for a coursebook, even when not asked to get one by a teacher – because the value can be easily seen?

  2. Nobody I know buys books let alone class sets and no students I know want them. And, even if they did, buying them and getting them in time for the course is nearly impossible.

    With so much copying around and the need for change, perhaps we should ‘reboot’ the system to follow demand. People seem to want cheap or free materials for self-study but REALLY self-study and not ‘can be used in a class or for self-study’ books. Next, schools have no budgets for even copying but lots of students.

    I have seen people copy and print off scanned books on Scribd but they were useless. For instance, an IELTS student book.

    Online has to be the way, funded through advertising, as mentioned above. If it is targeted well, it would be suitable for the students and their subjects. They could do online stuff or print stuff off.

    No matter what I say to students, they think free is the norm.

    Otherwise, we should go back to the old days where publishers just sell to schools but very specialised materials which cannot be bought elsewhere and are only useful in that context. However, as EF and Wall Street et al have shown, they often make their own.

    A good teacher once said to me that the book only gives you 30% and the class the rest so that would show the uselessness of pirating them.

    1. “Nobody I know buys books let alone class sets and no students I know want them. And, even if they did, buying them and getting them in time for the course is nearly impossible.” With all due respect, this is an outrageous statement in almost every respect. There are specialist ELT booksellers (of which BEBC is the best known) who carry huge stocks of ELT books and are able (in BEBC’s case) to supply more than 90% from stock on the day of ordering for next day delivery in the UK. Phil Wade may not know anyone who buys books but in the UK alone BEBC has sold over 230,000 ELT books. I may be wrong is assuming that these are to students and teachers but since both individual copies and class sets are included in this number I somehow doubt it!

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