Higher Ed Open Textbook Provider Sued by Publishers. K-12 Implications?

The big industry news of the week is a higher education story, but one with potential K-12 implications.

Boundless Learning, a young but fast-growing company in Boston that curates open education content for college students, so they don’t have to pay hundreds (thousands, even) on textbooks, has been sued for copyright infringement. Textbook giant Pearson, along with Cengage Learning, and MacMillan Higher Education filed the complaint, alleging that Boundless is essentially trying to replicate three of their textbooks with “shadow versions” using free digital content. Using Creative Commons licenses, the company bases the content it recommends on the titles of the textbooks students are assigned.

From the suit:

Defendant generates these “replacement textbooks” by hiring individuals to copy and paraphrase from Plaintiffs’ textbooks. Defendant boasts that they copy the precise selection, structure, organization and depth of coverage of Plaintiffs’ textbooks and then map-in substitute text, right down to duplicating Plaintiffs’ pagination.

Boundless is in a private beta phase now and is free, but in interviews its founder has suggested an eventual paid service. The company has raised close to $10 million in about a year, TechCrunch reports.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Boundless Learning CEO said the publishers are “using litigation to protect an antiquated business model.”

“They’re wrongfully claiming ownership of open knowledge,” he said.

(Whether this is true or not, the suit is worth a read. In addition to outlining allegations against Boundless, it doubles as a scathing critique of the open content insurgency. It’s embedded at the end of the post.)

This is a more pressing issue in higher education, where textbooks cost more and the point-of-purchase rests on the student, not the school district. But there are plenty of K-12 initiatives—CK-12 Foundation, PowerMyLearning, WolframAlpha are some we’ve written about—that, if they gain enough traction among teachers and students, could affect district buying habits in the same way that Boundless attempts to disrupt purchasing among college students. Some districts, most notably Vail, Ariz., have gone textbook-free in favor of curated open and teacher-generated content.

As the open content movement gains more traction, the copyright issue will loom heavier. Just yesterday, I wrote a post about $7 million pledged by major education foundations to PowerMyLearning.com, which curates free education content in K-12. Elisabeth Stock, the founder of the nonprofit that started the site, said she wants PowerMyLearning to supplement content from publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill. What users do with the content is another story, however, as is how traditional publishers and judges view that content.

The suit against Boundless Learning, and the future of open content, will have to consider the distinction between free content that supplements proprietary content and free content that replaces it.

What do you think the K-12 implications of this suit could be?

Education Week: Publishers vs. Boundless Learning (Text)

2 thoughts on “Higher Ed Open Textbook Provider Sued by Publishers. K-12 Implications?

  1. As corporate takeover of public schools proceeds, those who strive to make ever increasing profits of children will begin feeding on each other. All this continues to cut budgets of schools and they wont be able to buy texts or computer progrMs. Then we can begin to teach and communicate with students.

  2. According to what I’m reading above,this suit brings up specific laws and infringements it feels the copycats have made. I would think the implications could be narrow, or very broad.

    Narrow if it sticks to the one company and the copycats have actually done all stated in the
    suit. Others would still have opportunity to branch out in the mega millions to be had in textbook publishing (or fight for free information to all).

    Broad if some new rulings and interpretations of the law are given. That would make it the "case study" for future lawsuits along the same line.

    Having spent thousands over the years on textbooks, I have no problem with innovations and new techniques to get materials to those needing the materials. Those trying to do this simply need to follow the laws in place.

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