A Textbook Example of Educational Luddism

As is the case every year, parents equipping their children for the upcoming school year have spent hundreds of shekels on textbooks.

Midway through the previous school year, the Education Ministry came up with a novel idea: entrepreneur Zvi Schwartzman proposed that the ministry examine the cost effectiveness of publishing textbooks, for which the ministry holds rights, on the Internet. Following six months of planning and Microsoft Israel's willingness to volunteer its servers for storage, the Education Ministry announced suspension of the pilot. The ministry explained that despite owning the copyright to the books, it was not allowed to make them available via the Internet. At the same time, the publishing houses that sell textbooks to students informed the ministry that they would refuse to participate in the project even if they were paid the books' full price by downloads.

Schwartzman first raised the idea 18 months ago. On the website esefer.net, Schwartzman has provided a detailed list of meetings he held with politicians, Education Ministry officials, and high-tech executives, all of whom he tried to recruit to support the project.

"Currently, parents are forced to buy new textbooks every year," Schwartzman said. "In many cases, the students don't even read the entire book - only selected chapters. And they can't pass the books on to next year's students, because if even two pages are updated, the publishing house will bring out a new edition and, of course, charge more."

Schwartzman said that making textbooks available via the Internet would allow students to pay to download only the relevant chapters, and would allow the publishers to update their books during the course of the school year.

"The intention is not to allow the books to be downloaded free of charge," Schwartzman said. "But the Internet could save us the cost of printing and distribution, reducing the cost of textbooks by tens of percent."

Schwartzman submitted a written proposal to the Knesset's Education Committee in February. The panel recommended launching a pilot, and the head of the Education Ministry's Pedagogic Council, Prof. Yaakov Katz, gave his backing. Schwartzman, who had already enlisted Microsoft Israel on the project's technical side of the project, said he participated in many meetings at which Education Ministry officials claimed to have the rights to "hundreds of books." The officials told him that within weeks, the files would be transfered to Microsoft, and the project would be launched.

Just a few days ago, however, the ministry informed Schwartzman that the project was being suspended. According to Katz, the problem is a legal one.

"When we published these textbooks, we signed contracts with various bodies who allowed us to use their maps, diagrams, and poems on condition that we only use them in printed books," he said. "These contracts were signed five, 10 and 20 years ago, and although we have the rights to the books themselves, the word `Internet' is not mentioned. It was an error, but that's the situation. So even though we have the rights to publish these textbooks, we cannot make them available via the Internet. If we do publish them online, we are laying ourselves open to legal action."

Katz added that the Education Ministry's legal department is looking into ways to reopening the agreements, and is negotiating with the various bodies in an effort to resolve the problem and relaunch the pilot for the next school year.

Schwartzman, meanwhile, said he will continue to contact and try to persuade the owners of the rights to the works to allow the books to be made available online. "Everyone will benefit," he said. "Even the rights holders. Under the system I am proposing, the students will have to prove that they purchased the textbooks. There will be proof that the works in questions have been paid for. There is no reason for anyone to fear loss of income."

But Katz already foresees the next problem.

"There are some textbooks, published by independent publishing houses, for which we do not hold the rights, and they are not even willing to discuss putting their books on the Internet." According to Katz, one of the publishing houses has already sent a lawyer's letter threatening to sue the state and the Education Ministry if its books are published on the Internet. "The publishers are demanding huge sums of money to allow us to make their textbooks available via the Internet. In fact, they are not even willing to listen when we tell them that the books will cost exactly what they cost in the stores. They're not willing to even let us mention the Internet."