Harvard Bookstore: "We Own ISBN Numbers"

The Harvard Crimson ran a story last week about a student who was asked to leave the premises for writing down the prices of six textbooks at the Coop, Harvard’s bookstore of record. The bookstore’s president says that there’s no official policy against students writing down information, but “we discourage people who are taking down a lot of notes.” But what’s more surprising, he tells the Crimson that the textbooks’ ISBNs—which can be used to look up the same books online—are “the Coop’s intellectual property.”

The Crimson speculates that the Coop may be reacting this way because of Crimsonreading.org, an online database that lets students search for the lowest prices by using ISBN. Harvard’s Undergraduate Council President says he’s spoken with an intellectual property lawyer and confirms that the ISBN-ownership claim is hogwash.

We understand taking severe measures to protect your business against cost-cutting competitors—especially when they have a business model that potentially gives them the upper hand against your traditional brick-and-mortar establishment. But we think it’s pretty hilarious to invent copyright law. And we wonder, do they own the ISBNs of all books, or just the ones in their inventory? Does the publisher have any ISBN ownership rights? Maybe we should create some sort of international, standardized book numbering system so we can replace this proprietary one.

Anyway, so yeah, don’t use ISBNs without writing to the Coop first and asking for permission.

“Coop Discourages Notetaking in Bookstore” [The Harvard Crimson, submitted by Joe—thanks, Joe!)


Edit Your Comment

  1. thepounder says:

    Just spitballing here, but the ISBN is issued to the publisher… thus, they’re idiots & it’s not their intellectual property.

    They’re just mad they can’t rip people off for those books.

  2. MTigerV says:

    I’m confused. Aren’t ISBN numbers issued by The Library of Congress and therefore, by law, in the public domain?

    btw is it Coop of Co-op?

  3. thepounder says:

    @MTigerV: Good question… is it more like a chicken coop? or a co-op? WTH?

  4. UpsetPanda says:

    I remember about a year ago at my college bookstore, they started an online system of buying books so that students could buy them earlier in the summer. I went on the website and to my surprise, there were on ISBN numbers! Every book I used had several older editions with the same name, and not only did they not list the book edition or the ISBN, it wouldn’t let you search for anything else! The search engine was designed so that you could enter in your class information and it would find the required books and all you had to do was pick “used” or “new” and hit buy! Of course this was all under the guise of “user-friendly” but it was more like making sure students couldn’t buy textbooks anywhere else without a headache!

  5. technotica says:

    I used to do this a couple of times when I was in college. Not so long ago, but the bookstore would include everything about the books required for a course on their website (title, author, etc.) but would fail mention a ISBN. After a little recon into the bookstore (husband was mortified) I’d scribble notes on my Palm and leave post-haste to go to Amazon or Half.com.

    Every time I screwed the bookstore it made my heart skip a beat. If only the computer user fee could have been sidetracked so easily.

  6. Chicago7 says:

    As the U.S. ISBN Agency, R R Bowker is the exclusive US source of publisher prefixes and accompanying ranges of ISBN numbers for eligible publishers. It provides information and advice on the uses of the ISBN System to publishers and the book trade and promotes the use of the Bookland EAN bar code format. In addition to their ISBN prefixes, publishers also register their titles for inclusion in the Bowker Books In Print databases.


  7. Buran says:

    You can’t copyright facts. Sorry.

  8. monkey33 says:

    They aren’t issued by the Library of Congress, there’s actually an international organization that issues ISBN’s. As a textbook buyer, that’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.

  9. dirk1965 says:

    ISBN are purchased by the author or by publishing company in the name of the author. Unless they are the actual author of the books, I don’t see how they can make that statement.

  10. RandomHookup says:

    They must be pretty adamant because the Coop called the cops again a couple of days later.

    [www.thecrimson.com] Coop Calls Cops On ISBN Copiers

  11. hc5duke says:

    Just take a picture of the front cover with a camera-phone. Then look up the title/author on amazon or half.com to get the ISBN. No sound, no suspicion, and doing this avoids the situation where if you mess up one number, you end up with a useless sequence of number.

  12. TechnoDestructo says:

    Oh, no….I want the bookstore to win.

    The ISBNs are their intellectual property because they bought the books?

    So everything on a CD or DVD I buy becomes my intellectual property?

  13. homerjay says:

    @TechnoDestructo: That would be quite the precedent to set.

    By the way, its Coop.

  14. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

    If I were a professor or instructor, I would make sure to include the ISBN for the required book(s) on my syllabus ( I wonder if school administrators discourage such a practice).

  15. Critcol says:

    It was originally Co-op, but at some point in Harvard’s history, it became the Coop. There’s a few stores on campus (one is in the Harvard Business School), but the one that keeps being dumb is probably the main one at the heart of Harvard Sq.

    A protest should be organized where hundreds of students go in and they spend the time to copy down every ISBN.

  16. Illusio26 says:

    I work for a publishing company and I think its really funny that the bookstore thinks the ISBN numbers are their own IP. If the bookstore publishes the titles themselves, the might have a chance, but for any title they just sell, their insane. The ISBN number we put on a book doesn’t change for every bookstore the book is sold at.

  17. letoofdune says:

    Harvard calls it the “Coop.” I should know, I’ve been asked to leave by their security. Apparently, they don’t find humor from other Ivy League schools funny.

    /Go Green.

  18. gunboats says:

    To current textbook shoppers: I don’t know if it still holds true, but when I was in school, you could save a ton by buying textbooks from amazon.co.uk, even after shipping. Search by ISBN and I believe you’ll get the same book (with a sticker on the front saying it is the special European edition) for a lot cheaper.

  19. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    @TechnoDestructo: Niiiice!

  20. azntg says:

    My ex-girlfriend went to Harvard. They pronounce it like “coop” (as in chicken coop) and not as “co-op”.

    I’ve visited there just prior to breaking up, and all I can say that it’s just your overpriced run of the mill campus bookstore. Okay, perhaps it’s bigger than some other campus bookstores, but otherwise nothing spectacular to see there.

    I would say, just note the titles of the books (verify that it is used in your class) and find the ISBN online. I’ve done that last year and I’m still plan to do it for future years in college. Much faster, cheaper and convenient.

  21. @TechnoDestructo: Oh man, that would be CRAZY!!

  22. drjayphd says:

    @letoofdune: Well, I mean, if I’ve learned anything about the Ivy League from my brother, it’s that Harvard sucks and Princeton doesn’t matter…

  23. I would say, just note the titles of the books (verify that it is used in your class) and find the ISBN online.

    @azntg: I’ve had trouble being sure I had the right version of the book just going by the title. A few books had other weirdness going on, not just nth editions of the same book.

  24. mandarin says:

    Do you need a president to run a bookstore?

  25. dextrone says:

    Harvard of all schools, hmmm how i n t r e s t i n g….Perhaps getting in there is now going to cost a gold bar with 2 gold coins to get the books , not just “We’re here to help you learn, not rip you of.”

    It’s sad, schools these days (once again that is a bit exaggerated.)

  26. Maurs says:

    I will use Harvard’s reasoning to stop the police officer from copying down my license plate number the next time I get pulled over!

  27. UpsetPanda says:

    I had a professor who purposely put ISBN numbers, edition numbers and even a screen cap of the textbook on his course syllabus because he knew that the bookstore was overcharging on everything. All of his students thought he was awesome because he defied “the man” and gave his students the chance to buy the textbook from half or amazon. He even printed off pages of the textbook for students to use until their books got in from the seller so they wouldn’t miss reading.

  28. Uriel says:

    coop coop a doop

  29. muddgirl says:

    Our campus bookstore had an online ordering system, without listed ISBNs (the N stands for number…), but with the title, author, and edition it’s pretty easy to find cheaper textbooks online. Use Amazon to get the ISBN and check all the usual suspects (half.com, abebooks, etc).

    It’s ridiculous, but I’m sure the campus bookstore has the right to refuse service to anyone, or something like that. Makes me wonder how the Coop expects the student to buy books when they’re banned from the only bookstore on campus! :)

  30. putch says:

    i think they’re more upset about the ISBN-to-course number relationship. What I mean is I dont think the store cares that you are aware that ISBN# 1234 (this is just an example) is for “the introduction to bullshit” text book. but that ISBN# 1234 is recquired reading for “Bullshit 101” class.

    see what i’m getting at? the book lists? there might actually be some IP issues there. here in NYS i remember there was talk about passing a law to make state university book lists public records accessible under freedom of information laws.

    basically, this is a classic campus bookstore fight. every college town i’ve seen has 2. one “official” on campus store and an off-campus store that tends to have cheaper prices but might be lacking some of the course codes. so you’d actually have to bring your syllabus with you rather than just go to the aisle labeled “econ” and then look for your specific course/section.

  31. zolielo says:

    I was even worse at times by taking a book to the internet connected computer section to price check against common online sellers.

    I went with the lowest cost, which at times, was the book store.

  32. RandomHookup says:

    I spent 6 months on a project barcoding the inventory in religious bookstores overnights a few years ago and all this talk to ISBNs is giving me PTSD.

  33. AlexPDL says:

    This is funny… I used to do it all the time in law school. I’d load up on all the books I needed and set up at a table and pull out my lap top. I would copy down all the ISBN numbers and then start shopping for them (at the store) on Half.com over the wireless. If half.com didn’t have them then I’d buy them from the store. No one ever said anything. It would be crazy if they had.

  34. lihtox says:

    Most professors would prefer to save their students money whenever possible, so if you want to order your textbooks early, try contacting the department or emailing the professor (the former suggestion is better if the class is very large; imagine 100 emails all asking for ISBN numbers!) Given the notorious lefty anti-establishment bias of academia, this latest kerfuffle may make some professors *eager* to thwart the Coop in this regard.

  35. Cowboys_fan says:

    What a joke, IP, seriously!? I’ve never done that but I have photocopied in the bookstore, the few pages I need for my next assignment, from the textbook. I used to avoid buying them as long as possible as some classes rarely even used them. Some classes I didn’t even need to copy pages. I doubt they’d like that very much either.

  36. FLConsumer says:

    @lihtox: I wish… at my Uni, the profs often write their own “books” which are just poor quality photocopies of various crap they’ve typed up over the years and had bound. What should have cost $10 at most suddenly costs $75 for about 50 pages of photocopied notes, many which were printed on a dot matrix printer to give you an idea of hold old & crusty the copies were.

  37. its a co-op. cooperatively run by a school and a company. I used to work loss prevention at Uconn’s Co-Op and did the exact same thing this person did. Eventually I wised up and just studied from the books during breaks and after shifts. Graduated too, surprisingly

  38. ok, so I guess it is the Coop at Harvard. Damn preppies have to be distinguished in any way possible I guess

  39. amoeba says:

    @FLConsumer: I also had to buy my professor’s books at a pretty high price at my U… and talking about “ISBN” I used to work part time at my Uni’s library, you couldn’t search a book by its ISBN, it had to be by reference given by the librarian or the author’s surname, etc. In my opinion, it is a University thing.

  40. paxon says:

    Also, keep in mind that contrary to the title of this post, the Coop isn’t the same thing as the Harvard Bookstore (or HBS, which in turn, shares the same abbr. as the Business School). While the latter’s site only pertains to Harvard in general (as in Harvard Square) and, in my opinion, is a much much better store (for used books, manuscripts, etc etc; it’s like the Strand equivalent of Cambridge).

    The Coop (www.thecoop.com), on the other hand, is the one affiliated with the school, and has been featured in the Crimson (and likely to be satired in the Lampoon). Semantical issue, I know, but just thought I’d clarify…

  41. BrianH says:

    I’ve heard from my neighbor (his son goes to Harvey Mudd or MIT or Caltech or something like that) that on many campuses there is a movement underway to buy, scan, and share textbooks on an ENORMOUS scale. With BitTorrent and scanners / digital cameras (not to mention closed university LANS and intranets), the high-priced textbook monopoly of campus bookstores is on shakey ground.

    Mind you I’m not condoning it or slamming it, but once he told me it sounded so obvious, yet I hadn’t even thought of it before.

    Anyone wanna scan my 20 year engineering textbooks? First let me blow off the dust :-)

  42. lihtox says:

    @FLConsumer: The exact situation you describe ($75 for a 50-page photocopy of the professor’s own notes) is unconscionable. If the photocopies contained copyrighted material from elsewhere, then the cost may be mandated by the copyright owners. You might approach the departments’ chairs and demand to know why they are charging so much.

    It is perfectly reasonable for a professor to require his own book (he probably wrote the darn thing so that he could teach the class just the way he wants to). If that book is published, the price is set by the publisher, and the professor rarely gets very much of the royalties. If the book is still in manuscript form, it should be sold at cost to the students.

    I’ve never seen this phenomenon myself; maybe I lead a sheltered life? :) If you like you may emend my statement to read “If I taught at Harvard”… I *am* a professor, though not at Harvard… “I would make a point of publishing the ISBNs of my required textbooks, SPECIFICALLY to screw with the bookstore.”

  43. MoCo says:

    I don’t know about Harvard, but hundreds of college bookstores are now run by Barnes & Noble. B & N has a special college website ([www.bkstore.com]) where you select your college, your course, and your section, and then a rather obfuscated list of books for the course appears. (The prices are VERY high if you order directly from the B&N college bookstore.) However, they don’t give out the ISBN numbers for the books. Sometimes you can figure out what the books actually titles are by looking at the abbreviated titles and the authors, and them order them from other sources. Other times, you have to go to the college bookstore and look on the shelf and actually look at the book and get the ISBN.

    Easiest way to avoid the hassle is to use a cell phone camera in the book store and just photograph the ISBN labels of the books that you need.

  44. FLConsumer says:

    @lihtox: I don’t believe anything was copyrighted, but it certainly was most unprofessional. The department chair sidestepped the issue saying professors are free to choose whatever materials they find appropriate to teach the course. I’ve seen it happen far too often in my courses. $200+ for a chemistry text is a sham, especially given that the prof DID get in trouble for plagiarism and did have to issue a “revised” edition to avoid a major copyright suit. Still… if any student were to submit anything which was plagiarized or worse, published something which was plagiarized, they would be kicked out of the school. Instead, this prof has “Distinguished Emeritus” status.

    Conversely, I have had two classes where the professor wrote a decent book and made it available at low cost (<$20) or available as a .PDF file. I’ve also had two professors who said there weren’t books available which adequately covered the material, so they just gave us their presentations and occasional photocopies of things they found along the way.

    /as a side note, why do colleges have it backwards? I realize professors bring in money through research grants & such, but students are the ultimate consumers for these institutions, and at least at my Uni, are treated like dirt.

  45. yahonza says:

    Reprehensible rent seeking behavior on the part of these college bookstores, of course. Tens of thousands a year for tuition, then they try to force you to overpay for books? disgusting.

    But there is one aspect of their claim that may not be completely wrong. Intellectual property is usually considered to include trade secrets. Trade secrets can be anything whose secrecy gives you a competitive advantage.

    In this case, the bookstores profit from keeping the ISBN numbers secret, hence the colorable IP claim.

  46. Phipps6505 says:

    Our campus bookstore is Barnes & Noble. I don’t know what’s different, but they do post the ISBNs for all books. Perhaps our campus mandated that information be available.

    Our campus is in the process of being sued for witholding $500 of student aid as a courtesy to spend at the bookstore. The independent bookstore in town is not happy with this.

    A course I teach switched books to save the students money (it was around $20 cheaper. The independent bookstore marked the new text down.

  47. IphtashuFitz says:

    We’re talking Harvard here, right down the street from MIT. Here’s an idea for some MIT techie to make a little money. Build a simple hand-held barcode scanner that Harvard students can rent and take into the Coop with them. They scan the barcodes of the books they’re interested then take the scanner back to the MIT student who prints out the ISBN’s for them.

    I know you can buy RFID readers that’ll plug into Palm Pilots and other sorts of PDA’s. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were similar attachments available to scan barcodes. Some kid could make a small fortune renting such a device to students as needed. Make it something that can strap to the wrist with the reader in the palm and it’d be virtually impossible for somebody in the store to see what they’re doing.

  48. zolielo says:

    @BrianH: Just yesterday I got an email from a friend of mine at “Harvey Mudd or MIT or Caltech or something like that” about a DVD size daa distributed through bit torrent about a vast number of high end / high level physics books.

    That is wrong, so I did not get it… Just saying that for sure that type of sharing is out there. And it could be a strong educational aid in some situations.

  49. Anonymous says:

    Putch’s comment is correct. The issue is not about owning the ISBN #’s. Harvard doesn’t aggregate a list of ISBN’s and courses. The Coop calls each individual professor and department to get a list of the books they intend to use. They then organize the books by class for the convenience of students.The information is available but takes a lot of work to put together and that work is what the Coop seeks to protect.

  50. ju-ju-eyeball says:


    I want to sell books for 10x their normal worth! And guess what, you will barely even open the books and use them!!! SUCKERS!!!!

  51. azntg says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: Yeah, I realized the shortsightedness of my comments to some. I personally can use that technique without deviation because CUNY Hunter professors generally tend to use regular version textbooks (or occasionally, the Hunter bookstore does have a “custom” version available, but those are near indistinguishable from the regular versions aside from the different cover art). Okay whatever…

    Anyway, in general, it’s about high time that textbook publishers stop going out of their way to arserape the students on overpriced textbooks. Either that, or they raise all prices on books uniformly, then maybe they won’t be having to hear about sour feelings (for the same reason anyway).

  52. paco says:

    For textbooks, the Coop is the main game in town–as are the bkstores on most campuses. Lots of profs of English and other courses with trade-based reading lists did, however, connect Wordsworth’s and the Harvard Bookstore and encourage their students to go to the real independents.

    Oh, and for the record… I worked at the Coop in the early 90s, and the management was evil.

  53. Sudonum says:

    Maybe something like this?

  54. LionelEHutz says:

    Gotta love that Harvard edumacation…no wonder the ‘leaders’ they produce are always wrong.

  55. EtherealStrife says:

    This is why I loved it when professors used pdfs on their websites and jstor whenever possible. I enjoy reading hardcopies of texts, but not enough to buy thousands of dollars worth of textbooks and article compilations.
    For everything else, there’s campusi. All I need is the author and title, you can keep your damned isbn.

  56. lihtox says:

    @FLConsumer: The department chair sidestepped the issue saying professors are free to choose whatever materials they find appropriate to teach the course. I’ve seen it happen far too often in my courses. $200+ for a chemistry text is a sham….

    The question is, who is setting the prices? For the $200 textbook, it’s the publishers doing it, and the department can’t do a thing about it except choose another textbook (a nontrivial exercise). In the case of the $75 course packet, however, someone is setting that price: is it the professor, the department, the college, the bookstore? How are they justifying the cost? Have they broken the cost down into its components? Is someone making a profit? etc.

    These are rhetorical questions of course. And I’m sorry to harp on this one specific example, but since it is clearly a local matter, it is easier to fix. $75 for lecturer’s notes without copyright issues are NOT “business as usual”, and the people responsible should be called on it, loudly.

  57. spryte says:

    But what specifically do they mean by saying that an ISBN is their
    intellectual property? IP includes patents, copyrights, trademarks,
    etc. Under which of those categories do they think this falls? Unless
    the store wrote the books themselves, they don’t own any IP rights to

    As far as it being the “book lists” that they want to call IP, that
    sounds like a bunch of poo. I work for an IP law firm and don’t see how
    they would prove that there was anything IP-related about a list of
    books. The only thing I can possibly think of is trade secrets, but
    even then it would be quite a stretch.

  58. FLConsumer says:

    @lihtox: Considering the Uni prof wrote the book and similar textbooks sell for $145, I’d still blame the prof/department on it. The department COULD choose a different book. As an aside, it was a terribly written book. I ended up buying a different text and adapting it to the class. Organic chemistry is organic chemistry, at least for the basics.

    Not sure who set the price on the course packets, but it’s one of the biggest rackets on campus. The bookstore wouldn’t buy them back either, but fortunately you could just put up a sign near the science buildings advertising your copy and you could easily get $50 for it.

  59. dsolimini says:

    State law in Virginia requires colleges to publish the ISBN numbers of all required texts on their websites at the same time the book lists are sent to the university bookstores, removing the middleman and the artificial monopoly that college bookstores have.

  60. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @BrianH: I was making plans to start engineering school soon, since my fiance’s job looked pretty stable, and then he found out his position is being “downsized” this week. So much for that. I’m just sick about it.

    I can’t believe that the math and science required to do engineering has changed that much in twenty years, however. If you seriously have your old textbooks, and think a smart girl could get started on her own with them, please let me know if we can work something out. My user name at hotmail will do the trick.

  61. yahonza says:

    The only IP basis they could claim is that the ISBN numbers are a trade secret.

  62. zentec says:

    I have had the pleasure of returning to school and was shocked to find what these people expect students to pay for textbooks. Fortunately, one of my savvy classmates clued me into doing exactly what has been recommended above; going to the store, taking a shot of the ISBN of the book and getting it online. She also recommended not selling used books back to the thieves at the college bookstores, but selling the as a merchant on Amazon.

    She was right; a tax book that I bought for $180 fetched $150 on Amazon, where the bookstore was offering a paltry $60 for it.

    Sometimes old-fart “non-traditional students” can learn from those who are half their age.

  63. IndyJaws says:

    Did anyone happen to check out the title of the ISBN in the photo?

    “The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience”

    If intentional, great job Consumerist!

    If not, how wonderfully ironic.

  64. rg says:

    I thought they belonged to Al Gore!

  65. TPK says:

    If the bookstore really thinks they “own” ISBNs, they sure are behind on their lawsuits! ;-) If I were these guys, [www.books-by-isbn.com] I’d be shaking in my boots by now!!!

  66. Mary says:

    @dsolimini: I was so excited to read your comment, since I’m going back to school next fall.

    Until I remembered that the college is in D.C., not Virginia. Drat!

    Anyway, the funny thing is that sometimes when selling books online, if I don’t have time or a piece of paper, when I take a picture of the book, I snap the barcode too. That would be easy to do with a good enough camera phone at the bookstore (mind certainly isn’t good enough, but my sister’s would be).

    Or just use the notepad feature on your phone and pretend your texting.

    I know I graduated college five years ago, but I learned early on to hit the bookstore, write down the IBSN and then hit the internet. Sometimes I bought stuff at the bookstore because it was cheaper used. Once or twice, the bookstore actually didn’t have enough copies of a book to cover all the students and I ended up being one of the rare few that got it. Actually, there was one class where I was one of the only students with the book because I ordered it on half.com and it had gone out of print during the summer and the teacher didn’t realize.

    Which is when I learned that most textbooks are available in the library. That particular teacher always put her textbooks on a hold where you could only check them out for a few hours at a time. You never needed to buy anything for her classes.

    I have a feeling grad school won’t be so easy.

  67. Suppafly says:

    If you want to get the ISBNs of the books used in your university, file a freedom of information act request with the university. They will generally honor it and should be able to provide it in an electronic format (although it will generally be a mainframe dump and may require some cleanup)

  68. affidavid says:

    BTW, The Harvard Coop is actually owned and operated by Barnes & Noble, and they take the same stance with regards to copying ISBN. In addition, they have called the police to escort people out of the store taking photos with camera phone on the same “intellectual property” grounds (their displays, they claim).

    And, just this past summer, airport security was called in by a Border’s employee because a German tourist was taking pictures of books on display as well. It’s a nutty world out there.

  69. Caroofikus says:

    I’ve got an idea – let’s all write the bookstore and ask them for their permission to use the ISBN of a book in their store to search half.com. I’m gonna do it now, just to see their reaction.

  70. Blueskylaw says:

    The bookstore’s president says that there’s no official policy against students writing down information, but “we discourage people who are taking down a lot of notes.”

    Soooo, Harvard is against information?