OER Textbook Startup Sued By Publishers For Copyright Infringement

OER textbook startup Boundless Learning is being sued for copyright infringement by Pearson, Cengage, and Macmillan.  While the startup says that it's using openly licensed content to build its free textbooks, the publishers contend that the startup is copying topics, sub-topics, layouts and the like.

April 5, 2012

Boundless Learning can boast a bunch of features that make it sound like an incredibly promising education startup: it's focused on open educational resources. It's rethinking the textbook. It's student-focused. It's got a great set of advisors, including folks from Creative Commons, Connexions, MIT, and O'Reilly Media (disclosure: I also freelance for O'Reilly Media).

Sounds great, right?

But the startup's been hit with a lawsuit from Pearson, Cengage, and Macmillan, accusing it of copyright infringement. While Boundless Learning says that it's working with OER content and the OER community to create a free learning platform, the publishers contend that the startup "steals the creative expression of others, willfully and blatantly violating the Plaintiffs’ intellectual property rights in several of their highest profile, signature textbooks."

No doubt, the startup does position itself a free digital alternative to expensive textbooks, and via its Twitter stream, you can see it's fairly specific about the titles it's telling students they can replace. The lawsuit involves infringement on three titles specifically: Cengage's Principles of Economics, Campbell’s Biology (a Pearson textbook), and Myer's Psychology (published by Macmillan). When I spoke with Boundless co-founder Ariel Diaz, he confirmed that the three textbooks the startup currently offer cover economics, biology, and psychology.

But Diaz is adamant that Boundless has done nothing wrong here, and that the publishers are just using litigation in order to protect their "antiquated business model." He pointed to the ongoing legal battle between Cengage and Kno, another digital textbook, as another example of how the industry, feeling threatened, is "attacking innovation." The pitch I received yesterday about Boundless felt as much a rant against the publishing industry as it did an explanation of a vision of an OER alternative.

That's not to say the company doesn't have a vision. Diaz demoed a Web-based product, still in beta, with many of the familiar bells and whistles of other digital textbooks: highlighting, study guides, and the like. Diaz said that the students who've participated in the beta have positive feedback and would recommend the product to others, but it's hard to deny that a lot of what's exciting about Boundless is that operative word: free.

No doubt, there is a lot of free content out there, and there's a huge role to play for someone to help curate that for students.  Boundless is hardly the only organization that's interested in doing so, and it's not the only open source textbook publisher.  (There's <a href="http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/">Flatworld Knowledge</a>, for example).  Diaz says that the textbooks his startup has created are "aligned to the subject matter" based on the sorts of topics you'd see on the standard syllabus, but was vague, when pressed, about exactly where that content for them comes from. (Freelancers perhaps.)

The complaint doesn't charge the startup with copying content per se, but contends it has "taken hundreds of topics, sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics that comprise Plaintiffs’ textbooks and copied them into the Boundless texts, even presenting them in the same order, and keying their placement to Plaintiffs’ actual pagination. Defendant has engaged in similar copying or paraphrasing with respect to the substance of hundreds of photographs, illustration, captions, and other original aspects of Plaintiffs’ textbooks."

Diaz wouldn't comment specifically about the details of the lawsuit, other than to assert that the allegations against his startup are "without merit." (At the time of publishing this post, the 3 plaintiffs involved haven't responded to a request for comment either.)

Investors certainly seem confident in the company as the startup has recently raised a round of funding, bringing its total investment to $10 million. That does give it a little bit of room to defend itself against the lawsuit. But not much.

There's a lot of opportunity for someone to build an OER learning platform -- to curate materials for students, to make that content interactive, modifiable, modular, and social, to help OER textbooks be more than PDFs. Boundless says it wants to demonstrate that it can be the "value add" to the OER community by doing just this.

The courts, however, might decide something else entirely.


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