Pirating Test Prep Material Doesn’t Pay

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

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.

About the Ads

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.”

38 thoughts on “Pirating Test Prep Material Doesn’t Pay”

    • I wholeheartedly agree that Kaplan’s the criminal. But he should NOT have tried to sell that what he’d illegally downloaded. He was saving money just by downloading the textbooks alone.

  1. This is a tough one. He was wrong. I agree. But piracy is so widespread. Who hasn’t used Limewire or Bittorrent once? I think that he is a criminal, not because he used pirated materials…that is his business. I think he is a criminal because he SOLD it to others. That is dead wrong.

  2. Not sure how I feel about this. I’m actually an ex-Kaplan employee (for Pre Grad School Exams). I know what Kaplan charges, and I know how much of it they gave me as an employee.
    Piracy is of course wrong. Yet I can’t stand the “victimology” portrayed. One paid classroom student was what I would make per class. They were not mandated to have a class composed of less than 3 students. So while 1 student in this hypothetical class of 3 offset my wage, the other 2 were pure profit.
    Granted they do need R&D bucks. AAMC sells their proprietary testing information to Kaplan. I’m sure NBME/USMLE sells their testing information to Kaplan or grants them license to use it. That costs money. Most of the research is done by the teaching staff, internally. There was a handsome reward, yes. But relative to the profits, it was marginal.
    They are a publicly traded (via Wall Street Journal corp) company. They are for profit! The only people losing out are the shareholders and their parent company. It’s not like they add more people to the work force. They just entice the workforce that they have to put in extra for relative peanuts.

  3. Kaplan, is a greedy company that charges $2,000 to take one prep course. Some of the kaplan teachers just skim over the material. With all of the typos in the kaplan course materials I think kaplan should be charged for a crime. Kaplan steals thousands from unsuspecting college students everyday. Kaplan just got beat at their own game. Both kaplan and that pirate guy are both crooks, I don’t see any difference. I think kaplan has defrauded more people than this guy. Maybe the government should investigate kaplan.

  4. First of all, VP Biden is wrong. Piracy is not the same as theft. Whereas theft removes the original, piracy makes a copy of the original. “Hot” or stolen items are not always obviously so, whereas pirated material is very rarely presented as being sold from the original source (mostly because it’s much cheaper).
    Second, this quote: “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.”
    is fallacious.
    Kaplan may see the quantity of their sales go down and therefore decide to raise prices, but their argument doesn’t work the other way around. I have never seen prices go DOWN because the product was in high demand. That’s not how capitalism works.
    I agree he was wrong to make so much money off of it, but I don’t see much wrong with piracy for zero-gain (freely distributing, not selling), especially when the prices are so high in the first place that only those who have more opportunities in their education anyway will be able to afford them.

  5. Thats the problem and what you get for using torrents. The system has inherent design flaws, where your IP can get tracked using public trackers. His first mistake
    2nd mistake, any high profile sales of anything illegal is going to bring attention. He needs to watch the Sopranos to learn the tricks of the trade ha

  6. Huh, never thought about getting school stuff for free before. I’ve always a gotten (a little) music and movies for free, but I’ve never “sold” it to make a profit.
    Hmmm…$2000 dollar prep course, free prep, insanely expensive textbooks, free textbooks…

  7. @billy and anyone else interested:
    I recommend private torrents/doing it sporadically. Obviously if you’re downloading stuff like crazy someone is going to try to stop you.

  8. Obviously if you are going to shoot to be the biggest and baddest at pirating you are making yourself a target. This guy was a fool for putting himself on the radar.
    Do I feel bad for KAPLAN? HECK NO. The greediest and most evil company exploiting anxious students for money they don’t have at unreasonably high prices.
    What is even more outrageous is although they did not REALLY lose any money they are making $400,000 of off this from a guy that got kicked out of school, has no future or income.

  9. “What is even more outrageous is although they did not REALLY lose any money they are making $400,000 of off this from a guy that got kicked out of school, has no future or income.”
    This is so true, whournamiz. What right do they have to claim four times the amount that Chou made off of the material? I thought punitive damages were supposed to be reserved for evil corporations.
    Besides that, the people that bought from Chou probably only bought because it was cheaper. Kaplan didn’t really LOSE any money because the people who didn’t buy from them probably wouldn’t have anyway!

  10. Bottom line: your headline “Pirating Test Prep Material Doesn’t Pay” is blatantly false. Pirating test prep material and textbooks certainly does pay for the thousands or tens of thousands of medical students who do so and save huge amounts of money. Just because one guy got caught by stupidly trying to *sell* pirated material doesn’t mean that it doesn’t pay for most people.
    Here’s another good line: “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.
    That’s absurd. Most people who download test prep materials (or buy them cheaply from people like Chou) wouldn’t pay Kaplan $5000 to take the course. They would probably just do without them if they were unavailable.

  11. So the students who have the money to pay for all the resources should therefore get higher marks? All students should be given the opportunity to have access to materials for study irregardless. We already cough up 200k for medical school and I think that’s more than enough. Perhaps the medical schools should fund Kaplan courses for their students. God knows they make enough money as it is.

  12. I don’t think a whole lot of people are going to agree with you, Helena Bachmann. Especially when the main audience of this article consists of poor college and graduate students, not Kaplan CEOs and puppets.

  13. Piracy is not theft. It is copyright infringement. That doesn’t make it justifiable, but words have meaning. Let’s use the correct words and not let people with financial interests in the matter distort the issue by using deliberately misleading, emotionally charged phrases.

  14. The real criminals are the people selling test prep materials at prices only the filthy rich can afford. (Yes, you Kaplan!)

  15. It’s unfortunate that this happened. As noted in the article when Carina Wong said that “Kaplan puts significant investment into developing the best test prep materials available to students, and counterfeit operations can damage our brand,” I was in shock. Perhaps the initial development cost was high, but maintaining their materials does not cost them much. If they truly continuously put significant investment into development, you would see updated books, questions, etc. You would also see more practice tests.

  16. “Let’s use the correct words and not let people with financial interests in the matter distort the issue by using deliberately misleading, emotionally charged phrases.”
    If everyone followed this, we’d never hear from Biden or any other politician. It would be nice, though!

  17. Sitting for a standardized test for entry into Med school shouldn’t have to cost so much! Test prep providers give an unfair advantage to those who can afford to pay! AAMC should ban all test-prep providers and issue standard study material with practice questions to everyone.

  18. How is smashing a window and stealing original, physical merchandise the same as downloading material from the Internet? I hate it when this comparison is made, it’s like saying harassing someone on-line via chat is like fighting them in person. I don’t feel sorry whatsoever for the corporations (that already make lots of $$) who are the victims of copyright infringement, although I have to add, if your going to sell copyrighted material, you should be more careful.

  19. Biden is an idiot. Again and again digital piracy is compared to physical theft, although they are very different. When you steal a necklace from Tiffany’s, they can no longer sell it and are at a loss. When you steal a digital book, you are stealing one copy on an unlimited product. Yes, the company looses a potential sale, but they don’t loose any money or property.

  20. I’m with Phil on this one. Biden was a bit off target by comparing this guy to a two bit criminal. He violated copyright laws. A white collar crime normally punishable by expulsion from a school, enormous legal fines, or in this poor sap’s case both. He exploited the hard work of Kaplan employees who were originally only supposed to be exploited by Kaplan. It seems we all share a gut level disdain for Kaplan because their prices keep their products beyond the reach of many bright yet economically limited students. But we shouldn’t allow the fact that Kaplan cost too much for many of us or the fact that many of our educational institutions fall short of their price tag’s promise lead us astray in judging this criminal as a modern day Robin Hood. The more debatable issue might be corporation’s rights or even how the stiff penalties being handed down in these cases seem to be disproportionate to the crime committed. This isn’t eye for an eye justice, it’s five years in prison and $250k for copying a DVD. The idea seems to be that you’ll be crucified and made an example of if you’re caught. I didn’t know justice in America had such archaic practices like that of chopping off hands for stealing. I guess when it comes to money, America has never quite striven for fairness when corporations are involved.

  21. I don’t believe a company is “evil” for being profit-driven but I do believe this is a changing world and if a company can’t keep up then they deserve to “lose” money or potential profits-whatever. Ex: movie rental places now offers rentable dvds that come through the mail…if they didn’t most of their locations would probably shut down due to another company that DOES offer this convenience for a cheaper fee than renting in-store would cost. If kaplan offered cheaper(much cheaper) online or downloadable versions of their material they might cut their “losses”…then they could charge a little more(not much more if they want to sell any) for physical materials. I always thought if demand was down you lower the prices…you know…maybe become more competetive? Not sure what impact this article could have other than to convey the common sense message of “Don’t be stupid, don’t become a real “problem” for large companies, and in general, don’t get caught.”

  22. So I went to medical school with this guy. He is an idiot and, ultimately, got kicked out of medical school. He was caught cheating on an exam and, amazingly, he did not get kicked out. Rumor has it he paid a lawyer to argue his case and the school got scared. He was selfish, lazy, irresponsible, and lied openly to attendings in MSIII. I’m glad he got what he deserved. Let this be a lesson to pirates.

  23. Perhaps Kaplan could use better copyright protection?
    Examples include harder CD copying methods, Live and periodic activation….
    Is this so hard to figure out?
    Maybe Kaplan didn’t want to spring for such protection.
    They do seem to charge enough, and we know they will just roll the cost onto the consumer anyway.

  24. Ok.
    Kaplan charges what the public will pay. We call this supply and demand in the biz. If youre bent out of shape about what theyre charging, find a small, private company out there who gives the same service for a fraction of the price. A good one is chads videos. We actually have a PHD around in my area who also runs another for chump change. Kaplan is not evil – let us be thankful there are so many study materials out there for us to choose from.
    There is no advantage to richer students who can afford these classes. Our standardized tests arent so difficult that we need a professor to explain advanced concepts to us. Its a very genera overview of the basic science courses which you can memorize by yourself, and with free help materials on the internet. Besides, the majority of the ppl who take the physical kaplan course say it was a waste of time, and should only be utitlized by ppl who need the structure to make themselves study.
    We are NOT entitled to higher education. You have to work hard, not whine, and quit rationalizing why you “deserve” this or that. Getting in is the weedout process. Only the determined and the strong will succeed.
    Now go out there and quit making excuses and achieve. – Catab

  25. All of these posts are making me really uncomfortable. You people are going to be doctors? Aren’t we supposed to hold ourselves to some form of ethical standard? Piracy is illegal. It doesn’t matter if you are stealing from a corrupt corporation.
    As medical students we pride ourselves as being exceptionally intelligent; if something like this bothers you so much, put your great mind to work and find a creative and integrible way to combat companies like Kaplan. Can we really not come up with something better than saying we are justified to steal something because it costs more than it should?
    Like steve and dana said, we do not need these products to succeed. The courses/course material are consumer products for which we can opt to pay the set price if we FEEL we need them to improve test scores.
    And by the way, the “poor student” act is nauseating. We are NOT poor. We have options. The real poor do not. The overwhelming majority of medical students come from at minimum well off middle class families who never have even contemplated the idea of where the next meal is going to come from or how last month’s utilities are going to be payed. We may not have as much money as we like, but because we are investing in an education for a profession with a high pay rate, we have the ability to take out large amounts of loans and live as comfortably as we wish. You may not like how much the products cost, but if you think you need them, and don’t have the money available, you can always invest your loan money in one of these courses as part of your education. It’s called responsibility.
    Given that they are coming from future doctors, seeing all these juvenille posts side stepping responsibility and ethics really is scary.

  26. Also,
    They had all sorts of MCAT study prep at my local public library. I’m sure this is viable option for 99% of students, and it’s 100% free and legal. Just sayin’.

  27. I was wondering when the Kaplan cronies were going to start coming out of the woodwork.
    I’m a little disappointed in the ‘you’ll make a horrible doctor because of this,’ statement. It’s a bit overused and short-sighted in its own right, yet the person making it goes on to call those defending piracy juvenile. Ironic much?
    Other points:
    – I go out and do what it takes to succeed and achieve. Most of us med students do. Hence this piracy article. It’s the dark side of ambition.
    – Education should be a right, not a privilege. We all benefit if the people in our society are well educated.
    – Speeding is illegal, but I bet you don’t do that either. Don’t play the ‘holier than thou’ card unless you and God are BFFs.
    – Smart people did come up with ways to combat companies like Kaplan. It was called file sharing. Now it’s illegal. Coincidence?
    – Copying is not theft. For more on that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GU7axyrHWDQ
    – Don’t presume to know our financial circumstances. It’s naive.

  28. The whole test prep thing is a scam in the path of becoming a doctor. These companies only exist because of the fear of failing. They charge ridiculous and exorbitant prices for material that is mass assembled. They are a business designed to maximize profits and they profit of everyone’s fear of failing a stupid test. Why should someone have to go into more debt and more debt with each standardized test (mcat, step 1,2,3) for multithousand dollar programs to prepare them for another test in the bajillion hurdles to becoming a doctor when they are a quarter of a million in debt already?

  29. Heck, this just points out another ridiculous part of our medical system. You go a quarter of a million in debt and pay all this money on interest laden loans to take more and more tests to get to the next step. This crap doesn’t happen in other countries. Granted 10 years down the road you finally make more money as a doctor in america, but it is ridiculous to think i will be 29 by the time i ever earn a penny in this marathon. sorry im just a bitter second year studying for boards at the moment.

  30. Ethics has always been one of the main determining factors which segregate the strong minded from the weak. You can be “ethical” and ride your moral totem pole all you want but in the end, you’ll be the one who has to pay for it.
    Nobody is really going to give a rat’s *** how you got your step 1, 2, 3 score. The “ethical” student who paid for cheaper, albeit, inferior products will ultimately get a lower score and residency programs will pick the “pirate” over the “good boy.”
    Pirate, Drink and have pre-marital sex, you only live once.

  31. Kaplan sux anyway. I could see him giving the money back that he made, but being kicked out of med school? That is horrible and extreme. I’ve never sold test prep materials, but I really don’t think it’s any different than all the companies that steal it from the print companies and make a pure profit from it on Amazon and Ebay. I have, however, sold my own intellectual property if you catch my drift. This day and age, if you haven’t benefited at least once from illegally downloaded something or other, you represent the minority and not the majority. You mean to tell me you bought every single mp3 from itunes and have never watched a bootleg at ANY of your friends’ houses? I say if you can get it how you live, more power to ya. We all know the law and he did get caught breaking it. $100,000 is a drop in the bucket. To me they look like corporate bullies. There are people making WAY more than him off the sale of pirated materials. It’s kinda like how the FBI does drug trafficking. Make an example out of the flunkies, but the real kingpin lives on.

  32. Selling pirated material is a completely different issue than seeking it out. Trying to make a profit off of someone else’s work is unfair. Trying to offset unreasonable pricing that companies set to gouge vulnerable students is less so.

  33. Undergrad expenses +
    $2000 test prep +
    $250 MCAT Fee +
    $500 AMCAS Fees +
    $1000 secondary fees +
    $2000 interview expenses =
    rejection or 200k med school tuition

Comments are closed.