Background: I am a student. I didn't have anything in life for four years, and I worked myself silly at times for it. So now I ask - when I pay hundreds of dollars over the production cost (new textbooks are over a week's pay each) what and whom am I giving my money to?

It's probably not those working in the publishing factory, I don't think it's the professor who wrote the book; I imagine a rich entrepreneur , who, by positioning himself well in life, makes an immense amount of money while directly producing nothing of value, aka, the brass of a publishing company (correct me if I'm wrong). In fact, when our college tried to use an "open source" textbook, publishing companies promised to stop selling us books - all over that one class!

Now, I can buy an international version for some 20 or so hours of my life (aka, payrate) for each and every class. However, there are plenty of people in this process who deserve to be paid (yes, even the brass.) That said, books are so (over)priced I think it is more unethical not to pirate the book or buy a used or international edition - by feeding the predators, I become part of the problem.

However, there are many people on this site who are vastly more informed and experienced in academia than me and so I ask the following questions.


  • Is it ethical for me to buy international textbooks?
  • Incidentally, is it legal in the United States to buy international textbooks?
  • 11
    I think there is a fair question here, but you would probably receive better responses if you asked your question in a more neutral way. As it stands, this borders on a pure rant and may get closed.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 5:42
  • 41
    I don't understand how buying an international book can be perceived as unethical. Free market and what not. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 6:07
  • 13
    @MarcClaesen: I agree - if anything, offering the book internationally in a way that this could make a difference is what seems possibly unethical to me (i.e. tricking customers in one country into paying a lot more for the very same product than customers in another country). Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 10:20
  • 4
    The production quality of some international textbooks is also of lower quality than standard American textbooks. For example, one of my texts had paper so thin that the next page's text would bleed through. Had to use a piece of black paper below the page to be able to actually read it. No ethical crisis here otherwise.
    – Compass
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 14:12
  • 4
    Legal Yes, Ethical Yes as in this case here in the USA we live in a free market system, if there are versions of an item that you can not afford, and versions that you can, you buy what you can afford. The real issue I see, is if the international version and the version for the USA, as in the case of this question, is what the instructor requires for the course and bases assignments/etc off of. That said.....the era of physical textbooks really should be ending soon, what with access to e-media, and constantly evolving data (especially for Tech courses). Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 22:07

5 Answers 5


The US Supreme Court ruled that it is legal to buy and sell international editions of textbooks. As for the ethics, it clearly goes against the wishes of the publisher, so one might conclude that despite being legal that it is unethical. As for where the money is going, I believe most big publishers are publicly held, so the profits in general go to the share holders. Of course the costs include the salaries of the executives, royalties to authors, and the salaries of the individuals running the printing press.

  • 79
    I don't see how it should be unethical just because it goes against the (profit-oriented) wishes of the publisher.
    – silvado
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 7:47
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    @silvado I don't want to start a discussion and I am not a supporter of publishers, but I think their argument might go along the lines of: We sell international textbooks at a decreased price to make material, that would otherwise be too expensive, available to individuals in those countries. Importing these discounted international versions decreases sales of the standard version and this makes it economically infeasible to provide discounted versions to needy individuals/countries.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 9:51
  • 32
    I see that point, although I guess the real argument they don't state is more along the lines of We sell international textbooks at a decreased price because there's no market for the full price in those countries. Interestingly, even Great Britain seems to be among those countries.
    – silvado
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 10:22
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    As @StrongBad correctly notes, that is the usual argument made by publishers. However, lets not assume that the publishers are selling at a loss in those countries out of a noble effort to help humanity. The only incentive for publishers to present international editions is to tap into an otherwise closed market, where the only finality is to increase revenue. There is still plenty of profit on those editions (which I don't mind, by the way). International editions merely show just how outrageous the margins on standard editions are. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 11:55
  • 13
    I want to add that when I went to school in Canada some of my profs often told us to order the international versions as they were cheaper, and they would prefer us get the international version rather than pirate the textbooks.
    – user25345
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 12:27

Is it ethical for me to buy international textbooks?

Big companies want to have their cake and eat it. They want to source their labour and materials from whereever in the world is cheapest but they want to discriminate on price based on what each local market will bear.

American students have easier access to money than students in most other places. Even in relatively rich countries like the UK the student finance system is not set up to support students buying large numbers of expensive books.

So textbook companies set a high price for American students driving them deeper into debt while setting a lower price for the rest of the world where students can't and won't pay american prices.

I see nothing unethical about refusing to play along with their price discrimination games and buying an international edition.


NPR did a piece on this concluding that publishers' response to piracy and digital copies was to keep jacking up the price assuming there are many people who don't care about the cost and just pay the price asked regardless of how ridiculous (ie their parents pay or student loans, grants, or scholarship money pays for it). This results in $30 books shooting up to $100+ in a decade or two. If the publishers are happy with this model, I see no ethical issue as poor and middle class can still pirate or buy cheap copies while those who don't care about exponentially increasing prices can offset the fact that less people are buying standard versions. The fact that they are required to lower the price by 80% to sell outside the US should be a pretty clear message that the ethics problem is not on the consumer/pirate side. As iTunes $1 song sales was the solution to piracy when the alternative was pay $15 for a CD with 1 song you wanted, the solution here would be for publishers to go back down to realistic prices where it is easier just to buy the textbook rather than go through the hassle of pirating it or locating international editions. They won't stop making international editions because other countries will just bootleg xerox copies of the book and bind it, as I believe was the practice before international editions became available (and I think I bought a few of those in the past as well). I hope they figure out price-fixing doesn't work like the music industry, as pirated/international editions are saturating the market currently.

  • 2
    -1. This reads more like a rant than it does an answer to the question. In addition, while it offers a perspective on the first part of the question (is it ethical), it does not offer any answer to the second part of the question (is it legal).
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 21:35

While publishers often argue that international editions open access to knowledge in poorer countries, this argument is hypocritical at best. Publishers do make a profit when selling such books, it's by no means a charity. And the "market segmentation" strategy is not unique to textbooks, it is applied to various retail goods from computer games to luxury products with the purpose of maximizing the total profit. So if you think that you're paying a higher price for your calculus book so that poor a Syldavian student can afford one too, you're being simply misled.

Furthermore, the means required to implement such market segmentation are disruptive to the free market because they violate the First-sale doctrine. If you let publishers forbid reselling international books, what prevents the car manufacturer from forbidding you to resell your car to someone who'd have to buy a new one otherwise, with the same argument that they're losing a profit? (If you think my example is too far off, consider what fraction of the car's price is software, with copyright considerations which are not that different from a textbook). I don't see anything ethical about it, quite the contrary.

Buying cheaper books most probably reduces royalties the authors get. On the other hand, if you have a fixed budget to spend on books, buying international books will get you more books while the authors will get the same amount of money on average. Free market is great at maximizing the profits at one side an utility at the other, and I don't see how disturbing free market can be more ethical than letting it do its job.


Strongbad answered the legal aspect. I won't say whether or not it's ethical because it's ultimately up to your personal values, but I'll mention this tidbit which hasn't been mentioned yet.

All the book contracts I've seen has had author royalties tied to sales revenue. The clause can be complicated, but the essence is always the same: the more revenue the publisher makes from the book, the more the author is paid. If you buy an international edition, you pay less, so the author also gets less. If you pirate the book, you paid nothing, so the author gets nothing also.

Whether or not this is ethical is up to your personal values.

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