The New York Times recently ran a brief article about the burgeoning grey market in textbooks published in India. An engineering textbook that might cost $150-$200 in the United States might sell for $8-$10 in India.
According to the Times, it is legal for U.S. students to import such books for personal use, though the Indians exporting the textbooks are breaking the laws of that country.
On the one hand, it is just plain weird to think there are essentially region-specific textbooks to go along with region-specific DVDs and video games.
On the other hand, the publishing companies are in exactly the same boat that pharmaceutical companies frequently find themselves in. It is both in their economic interest and good public relations to sell goods in poor countries at deeply discounted prices. Essentially, consumers in rich countries end up subsiding consumers in poorer countries.
But this is only feasible if they are able to prevent reimportation. And given that some textbooks now cost more than a couple grams of cocaine, trying to stop reimportation of textbooks will be about as successful as efforts to stop importation of cocaine have been (plus you have to assume that there isn’t a lot of violence in the illegal textbook business, which on the downside means there won’t be any cool rap songs about jacking someone for his books).
Yet another example of how price discrimination is becoming increasingly difficult when information travels so quickly.