Is it Legal to Sell Instructor Edition Textbook Copies?

By: Ben Warren

Have you ever received a complimentary or “desk” copy of a new textbook from a publisher? Textbook companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Norton, and Macmillan routinely send new editions to professors for review. Most of them even allow instructors to request free copies in hopes that they will adopt the new edition. This is great marketing.
A professor that is reviewing new course material could end up requesting several competing copies. Is it okay to sell the others after making a decision? The publishers say no and claim they lose millions of dollars per year on complimentary copies that end up on the used book market. These 'special' instructor copies are usually marked with threatening words like "Not for Resale", "Complimentary Copy", "Free Copy", "Do Not Sell", etc. Some even claim that the sale of these "free" copies is one reason textbook prices keep going up.

Publishers Mix Threatening Words with Copyright Law

Publishers often bunch words together to make it seem like it is illegal to sell these books. Consider the following paragraph that might appear on an instructor edition.
“United States Copyright law protects this instructor edition from dissemination or sales of any part (including the Internet). This work is strictly for the use of instructors in teaching their course. Any availability to students will destroy the integrity of the work and is prohibited.”
Pay attention to how carefully the publisher lays this paragraph out. They use copyright law in the first sentence alongside their own wording in the second  two sentences to scare people who are on the fence about selling. They are trying to make the reader feel that copyright law is being violated by the sale but that phrasing is only stating that the work is protected by copyright law, as is any other published book. When they are talking about sales or dissemination, they are talking about not being able to copy and/or reselling parts of the book. When they say “prohibited”, it is prohibited in their opinion and not by any laws. A law professor that I worked with pointed this out to me - said they were using that phrasing to scare people.

New Editions Keep Prices High and Profits High

Is the practice of restricting the sale of these copies really about keeping prices low for students or protecting the vast profits of the college textbook industry?
In many cases, the justification for a new edition is to squash the used book market so the publisher can make more money. Every time a new edition comes out, all previous edition copies in circulation are automatically obsolete. A college student wants to have the same edition the professor is using to ensure success in class. College is far too expensive to take risks with older editions that might not match up to what the professor is teaching and could lead to bad grades. For most students, the choice is clear - purchase the new book.
According to the publishers, too many instructor editions hitting the used market can reduce demand for new copies, which impacts their profit and ultimately drives up prices. But they do want to keep prices high - they claim that complimentary copies going to the used market raise prices for students, but the new edition is for the expressed purpose of keeping prices high for students. The new edition is to reset the used book market, so they don't want any new editions available as 'used' so all students must purchase a brand new book.

The Rise of 'Additional' Course Material

It's not just textbooks themselves that are becoming more expensive. Many courses now require special materials such as handbooks, lab notebooks, study guides, video lectures and more. Some instructors produce their own materials that go along with the textbook, and of course they require all of their students to purchase them.
This was the case at the University of Georgia - a professor wrote a workbook for his class and had a company downtown print it for him. Everyone in the class had to walk downtown and purchase this booklet that could not be found anywhere else. It was put together like a spiral notebook, and it was not cheap.

Aren’t Complimentary Copies Just Marketing Costs?

Most businesses have marketing costs and publishing companies are no different. They actually write off the value of instructor editions they send to professors for review as operating expenses for their business. Therefore the costs of sending them out are baked into the prices students will pay for years to come. Yet they will still try to claim they are being defrauded and do their best to prevent you from selling it and making a little money.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say instructor copies in the used market drive up prices, and the truth is that these special editions make up a small percentage of the used market even after a book has been out for a few years. Most students don't even know about instructor editions and will buy the regular edition in most cases.

It is Perfectly Legal to Sell Something You Got For Free

According to the Postal Reorganization Act, a person that receives unordered merchandise is free to do with it as he or she wishes. It is, in the eyes of the law, a gift. That being said, it would not be ethical to request lots of review copies with the sole intention of reselling them for a profit. That's what publishers claim professors are doing with their instructor editions - requesting them just to sell and make a profit. However, it's hard to believe that well paid professors have the time or interest to run a side hustle selling textbooks and defrauding publishers. Most of them, with the exception of a few bad actors, are just reviewing new course material.
So Yes, you are free to sell your review copies online, and here is a price comparison tool that can help you get the most money for them. They are identical to the student editions except for wording that might say, " Instructor Edition" on the front cover. Unless they say “annotated”, they do not contain answer keys and are perfectly suitable for students to purchase and use in class. However, the ISBN numbers are usually different for instructor editions.

Do Not Use Your Amazon Account to Sell Instructor Editions

Amazon often sides with publishers and has been known to shut down seller accounts of those that deal with large volumes of instructor edition copies. It is not illegal to sell these books, but Amazon has terms and conditions and doesn't like products being listed that are marked "Not for Resale". Sometimes sellers will remove the barcodes and special markings and replace them with student edition barcodes, which is not ethical. Here is a good blog post on why you should not sell instructor editions on Amazon. A better place to go would be an online vendor that deals exclusively in textbooks and knows what they are getting. is a textbook buyback company that will purchase your used books. They specialize in instructor editions and can answer any questions you might have.

What if I Donate Them?

Some people heed the warnings from publishers and choose to donate their copies. Book drops are located in most major cities and college towns. It is worth noting that donated books, including instructor editions, are almost always resold for a profit by the companies operating the donation centers. These books are going to hit the used market anyway. It is just a question of who gets the money.