Andy's Math/CS page

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is This Right? Is This Legal?

This post may not approach the heights of quandary Scott has been facing lately, but I think it's worth discussing.

I typed in 'Computational Complexity' on amazon.com to get the reference info for Christos H. Papadimitriou's textbook of the same name. Here's what I got instead.

It's a 'Cram101' production, an outline of Papadimitriou's textbook. His last name appears on the cover, but not his first name or classy middle initial, suggesting he had nothing to do with it.

So, is this right? Does such an outline contribute enough to warrant its own copyright, or does it infringe on Papadimitriou's?

One might argue from the precedent of 'Cliffs Notes' for novels, but there are some obvious differences. Cliffs Notes summarize, but do not reproduce, the artistry or enjoyability of novels, whereas cram101 presumably makes a direct substitution: their skimpier expository writing, modeled directly on Papadimitriou's careful exposition. Cliffs Notes add a modicum of clarification, criticism, thematic discussion, etc., whereas it's not clear what if anything Cram101 adds (please note that I haven't looked inside, and am prepared to reconsider the issue if the publisher or anyone else wants to show me the book).

I have heard it expressed that Papadimitriou's book is hard reading, but there are other, more elementary textbooks out there
covering much of the same content. The things in the text that are not in most TOC books (extensive logic and some necessarily hard advanced topics like Razborov's Theorem) are probably not going to be tested heavily in class, other than familiarity with the theorem statements--and you can get that easily enough from the textbook.

So I'm guessing the motivation and main selling point for this book is its much lower price compared to the original text. I can sympathize--I spent more than a semester ducking into Cody's Books to read from 'Computational Complexity''s sumptuous, glossy pages before my parents bought it for me as a high-school graduation present. Expensive textbooks (and journals) hurt science just as they hurt the college students who are forced to buy them, and outlines like Cram101's are a by-product. (Let me add that a) I don't blame Christos for his book's price, b) it was for me a life-changing book, worth its price many times over and still one of my favorite books.)

Still, Cram101's costs are low partly because they are free-riding on Christos' considerable labors. Is a discussion of the larger academic publishing industry really necessary in this case? Again I ask--is this right?


As an independent point, I think amazon's presentation of the product is slightly duplicitous: though it does point out this is not
the textbook, it lists 'Papadimitriou' as the author, and it gives reviews of the textbook in place of reviews of the outline. Also, Christos' book comes up much lower in the search results.


Update 12/02: After being alerted to the Cram101 phenomenon, Christos said he'd see what he could do about it. Now I see that some changes have been made on the amazon page:

i) Papadimitriou is no longer linked to as the author;

ii) The title header has been changed--now it is prefaced as 'Outlines & Highlights for' C.C.;

iii) It now comes up below Papadimitriou's book in searches (though this may have more to do with sales-rank than intentional policy).

These are all positive steps. On the other hand, one still might wish that

i) Comments on Papadimitriou's book weren't displayed with this one, as they still are;

ii) amazon would have the sense to stop selling a book that is not only of questionable legality, but that multiple readers have characterized as a scam that doesn't even deliver the plagiarized content it promises. At the very least they could comment on their decision to sell it, offer customers a look inside this book, etc.

18 Comments:

  • ...but there are other, more elementary textbooks out there covering much of the same content.

    Really? I don't know any. (Are you thinking of Sipser's book? But that is very different material...)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:28 PM  

  • What's worse, they describe the original CC as the 'hardcover version' of this book, and all the reviews of the Cram101 assistant actually refer to the 'hardcover version' which is a different book !!!

    So I think you're right to call out Amazon on this point.

    By Blogger Suresh, at 4:35 PM  

  • anonymous, you're right, it'd be hard to cover Papadimitriou's content with Sipser. Or with Lewis-Papadimitriou, or any other single introductory
    book I've seen. Maybe two or three put together, but I'd
    have to check on this.

    It really seems like Papadimitriou is most appropriate for a second or graduate class in TOC. But if you're going in for a second helping of theory of comp, how on earth would you be so lazy, or so intimidated by the material, as to use Cram101?

    --unless you just wanted to save money....

    By Blogger Andy D, at 5:52 PM  

  • Oh wait... pretty much all CS grad students have to take TOC again. So yeah, I could see some people looking for an easy way out.

    By Blogger Andy D, at 5:54 PM  

  • In my day (before CC!) the introductory textbook was Garey and Johnson. I still think this would be good for a first undergraduate course: by not going much further afield than NP it is able to take a bit more time and explain things in more detail with more examples and more elementary proofs.

    For example, G&J have a direct proof from first principles that SAT is NP-complete whereas in CC Papadimitriou derives the result in a shorter but rather more opaque way via a reduction to CIRCUIT SAT. The latter is fine in context, but I think the direct proof is probably more compelling to people who are as yet somewhat unfamiliar with the ideas involved.

    But Papadimitriou's book is superb in pretty much every other respect and any CS student who avoids reading the whole thing is missing a treat!

    That "Cram101" scam is horrible. Maybe the publisher has found a means to exploit the way Amazon integrates the descriptions given them by their suppliers? By falsely flagging the book as the paperback version of the real textbook they get the excellent reviews of the latter to appear on the page for the rip-off.

    I wonder if Papadimitriou knows about it?

    By Blogger gareth.rees, at 6:48 PM  

  • The more I read, the more it looks like a scam. According to this press release from 2004, Cram101 is an "online service that uses artificial intelligence to read textbooks, summarize them and post highlights and key points of the material online".

    What's the betting that Scott Parfitt found that he couldn't get many suckers to pay $10 a month for the online service and decided to try the scam via online bookstores instead?

    According to a reviewer here, "This book is clearly not written by Papadimitriou. When I saw this book (Cram101) I didn't know what to expect, but hoped for some sort of easy presentation of similar material. This book has nothing to do with Papadimitriou's Computational Complexity. Half the pages are intentionally blank. The other half have definitions of terms (most repeated over and over) that have nothing or virtually nothing to do with the topic. For example "mean" is defined (poorly) 17 times and "sets" is defined (poorly) 12 times."

    By Blogger gareth.rees, at 7:07 PM  

  • Wow, that sounds even worse than I'd expected. I just emailed Christos to inform him.

    By Anonymous Andy, at 8:01 PM  

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  • I think amazon's presentation of the product is slightly duplicitous: [...] it lists 'Papadimitriou' as the author, and it gives reviews of the textbook in place of reviews of the outline.

    This counts as slightly duplicitous?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:25 PM  

  • Well, I was trying to be diplomatic. They're at least responsive to criticism--see the Update in the post.

    By Anonymous andy, at 6:16 PM  

  • I just found out about this scam myself, and I noticed something that no one else mentioned:

    These people aren't plagiarizing your CS textbook author: they are in fact plagiarizing Wikipedia.

    Apparently they are pulling keywords from the textbook descriptions on Amazon and then linking the corresponding Wikipedia articles.

    I filed a report with Amazon asking them to remove these jerks from the site.

    By Blogger Zeddicus, at 7:29 AM  

  • Nice discovery.
    Watching people find new ways to misbehave on the internet is almost fascinating--like learning about strange lifeforms deep on the ocean's floor. You're amazed at the diversity of niches out there, and at the same time you feel sort of nauseated by it all.

    By Blogger Andy D, at 5:46 PM  

  • Parfitt is NOT a phd. Peddled pool stuff and has no experience in virtual learning. He was fired from at least three jobs and started this con

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