A question that’s on almost every student’s mind is how and where to get enough money to pay tuition. Kenneth Chou “resolved” that problem by opting for a quick get-rich scam: piracy.
Chou was not an ordinary pirate roaming the high seas and pillaging ships. Instead, the former student at SUNY Upstate Medical University in New York peddled his illicitly obtained loot – Kaplan lecture DVDs copied from his school’s library – in cyberspace.
From about 2006 to 2007, when he was caught, Chou raked in an estimated $100,000 from the sale of the counterfeit materials, money that he was using to pay his tuition.
He was ultimately caught due to the vigilant oversight of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), a trade group for the software and digital content industry of which Kaplan is a member.
But even before Chou was formally identified as the medical student behind the piracy operation, Kaplan was well aware of his activities, says company spokesperson, Carina Wong.
“He blatantly ignored legal notices and mistakenly believed he would not get caught,” Wong tells SDN, adding that Kaplan, a leader in the test prep industry, currently has three other similar piracy cases pending.
In the end, Chou’s dreams of becoming a doctor bit the dust when he was not only expelled from school, but also ordered by a federal judge in New York to pay $400,000 to Kaplan in damages and legal fees.
Some cash-strapped students may argue that stealing test prep material to put oneself through school is no big deal. But Wong says such piracy acts ultimately harm all medical students. “The revenue that would normally go towards investment in program improvement and innovation to help their studies is instead lost to criminals like Chou,” she explains.
A widespread problem
Chou’s case generated a lot of media coverage, but it is far from unique. As a matter of fact, intellectual property violation – the unauthorized and unlawful copying of someone else’s work – is so rampant that even vice president Joe Biden recently spoke out against it.
“Piracy is theft,” he told reporters last month. “It ain’t no different than smashing a window at Tiffany’s and grabbing [merchandise].”
While it is difficult to estimate the global loss of revenue from acts of piracy across all industries, if we look at just illegal movie downloads, the numbers are staggering. According to a study by the Institute for Policy Innovation, motion picture piracy costs the U.S. economy over $20 billion and results in the loss of more than 141,000 jobs for American workers.
And while piracy is especially prevalent in the movie and music sectors, virtually all industries, including health care, are impacted by it.
In January 2010, at about the same time that Chou was fined, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against a board review course for physicians in internal medicine, alleging copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets by Arora Board Review and its two principal physicians.
ABIM alleged that the doctors and their associates illegally obtained and disseminated copyrighted test questions from ABIM Certifying Examinations for use at “board review courses” conducted for physicians by Arora. Physicians paid between $1,000 and $1,495 for these courses.
SDN members weigh in
The Chou imbroglio reiterates the question that is on the minds of many med and pre-med students: “Given the high cost of test prep materials – a three-month subscription to the Kaplan course can run about $3,400 – is buying pirated material ever justified?
This issue sparked various reactions among the SDN community, and, as in any controversial matter, the views are divided. A poll conducted in April of this year shows a divergence of opinions regarding pirated material – 58 percent say they “don’t see any problem” using it,” while 30 percent think it would be wrong to do so.
SDN forums also reflect different viewpoints about this issue. “Selling stolen merchandise to pay for medical school isn’t justifiable,” says a med student member.
“Attempting to justify theft or profiting from theft to offset the cost of a medical education is breathtakingly shallow,” posts another med student. “It reveals a strange and disjointed entitlement. Why am I owed? Because medical school costs a lot. From whom do I collect? An independent entity, which isn’t responsible.”
However, not all students agree with this stance; in fact, many take the opposing view.
“When I was an undergrad, I did a presentation on the rising costs of textbooks. I encouraged people to explore piracy, among other things, to offset the ludicrous costs of these books we are required to have,” notes a pre-med student. “When I can pick up a digital version of a Calc book for free versus paying $150 for it in the bookstore (used) the choice is rather obvious.”
This view strikes a chord with a another med student member, who says she used quite a bit of pirated material when studying for the MCAT. “I didn’t lose any sleep over it because I know that these companies are thriving on us.”
Adds another SDN member: “If these companies want to stop people from pirating their material, then maybe they should stop charging ungodly amounts of money for it.”
The other side of the coin
What does Wong think about the comments suggesting that the high cost of study courses justifies purchasing pirated material?
“On an hourly basis, our students receive extremely high value for their tuition, as our programs include several weeks of live lecture time by top medical faculty, and/or access to world-class video lectures and premium study resources,” she points out. “However, in order to make our programs as accessible as possible, we work directly with schools to determine appropriate tuition. We also offer promotional pricing opportunities regularly, and our centers work with students on an individual basis to make sure they’re able to take full advantage of these opportunities.”
Wong also says that, by purchasing pirated courses, students can actually cause an increase in the price of study materials. “Kaplan puts significant investment into developing the best test prep materials available to students, and counterfeit operations can damage our brand,” she notes. “More importantly, they can drive up the cost of materials and make it more difficult for us to invest in program improvement and new materials development.”
Cost aside, pirated materials may also mislead and misinform the students by not providing the most accurate and updated data, Wong warns. “While illegal sellers may claim to have Kaplan materials, purchasers often find themselves receiving inferior, incomplete or outdated material.”
And, there are other risks that pre-med and medical students should seriously consider before buying counterfeit courses.
“However tempting it may be to use illegally copied materials, the penalty is not worth the risk,” says Dr. Lee Burnett, SDN’s executive director. “Getting busted for sharing or selling illegally copied materials can mean the end of their chance to go to any professional school.”