4 Thoughts About Boundless, Publishers, and the Lawsuit

Have you checked out Boundless yet? The idea is either brilliant or criminal, depending on your perspective.

August 27, 2012

Have you checked out Boundless yet?  

The idea is either brilliant or criminal, depending on your perspective.

What Boundless does is to map open source content to chapters and sections of dominant textbooks. Students can enter the name of the assigned textbook on Boundless site, and the site automatically creates an aligned web based textbook (that is also totally free).    

Topics that Boundless covers include: writing, sociology, economics, psychology, business, biology, history, and physiology.

The publishers have reacted to the Boundless model as if it represents an existential threat. 

In March of 2012 3 publishers, Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan filed suit in New York alleging that Boundless is in violation of all manner of copyright infringement. In some of the most colorful language of the complaint the publishers claim that:

"Whether in the lecture hall or in a textbook, anyone is obviously free to teach the subjects biology, economics or psychology, and can do so using, creating and refining the pedagogical materials they think best, whether consisting of “open source educational content”or otherwise. But by making unauthorized “shadow-versions” of Plaintiffs’ copyrighted works,Defendant teaches only the age-old business model of theft."

The full 22 page complaint makes for some very interesting reading, I suggest you check it out.

So what do we think about Boundless and the publisher lawsuits? I'm hoping that you can provide some powerful arguments one way or the other, but here are my initial thoughts:

1. Intro Textbooks Are Pretty Much Interchangeable: For years I taught intro to sociology. To evaluate Boundless I entered a textbook that I have used in the past, Henslin's Essenitals of Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach. In reading through the textbook that Boundless created I found the material and exhibits to be perfectly adequate. I remain a fan of textbooks. I think that they have a role to play in helping to organize lots of information, and for introductory classes they can be used effectively in combination with primary sources. If you have ever taught an intro to sociology class (and I suspect other intro classes), you will know that the textbooks are pretty much all the same. They cover about the same topics in about the same way. It is the breadth, the synthesis, and the organization of the textbook that gives the textbook its real value. In the past I chose Henslin, but I could have picked Macionis or Kendall or Giddens or Ferris. The top intro textbooks are pretty much interchangeable.  I think that the publishers are going to have a hard time arguing that the organization of their books is protected when the lawyers for Boundless point out that every table of contents looks pretty much the same for every introductory textbook. The free Boundless version is just another entry into a sea of almost identical versions of our big selling, and hope-to-be big selling, higher ed textbooks.

2. The Quality Seems Okay: From what I could tell from scanning the Boundless sociology textbook (and I did not give it a thorough or complete evaluation - just a quick scan), it seems to me that students would do just fine using this Boundless edition.  This is not to say that the Boundless version is as good as the Henslin or the others. It is maybe 80% as good. But, it is 100% less expensive (free) - probably a compelling proposition for cash strapped students.  Would I ever assign a Boundless textbook?  What would hold me back is less the content, as again I think it is okay and I'm sure it will improve dramatically as new content such as that from MOOC's is added in, but some of the limitations of the platform. At present, Boundless does not have an app that allows for offline reading. The lack of an offline version would be a show stopper for me. I also utilized the quiz questions a great deal in my classes, as I believe in using formative assessments as a teaching tool. The lack of test banks, and the integration of test banks with the learning management system, seems to be a real shortcoming.   

3. Publishers Would Be Better Off Innovating Than Suing: The big problem that I see with the publisher lawsuit is the fact that the intro textbooks are already so similar to one another. How can the organization and structure of a book be protected intellectual property if all the books share a similar structure and organization? The lawsuit will only call attention to this lack of innovation on the part of the publishers. I think that there is a bigger risk of losing the lawsuit than the publishers realize. Boundless seems willing to take the fight to court. I think a better tactic than suing would have been to view Boundless as a wake-up call to spur innovation. What the authors and editors create with textbooks is incredibly valuable. Textbooks are moving from a product to a service, one that wraps assessments and simulations and labs and personalized learning around the content. A Boundless text may be a threat to the "old way" of creating curricular materials, it should not be a threat in 2012.   

4. I Don't Quite Get How Boundless Will Make Money: Boundless' revenue model seems to be a $20 up-sell to "SmartNotes". I'm not quite sure what SmartNotes does - but I wonder how many students are purchasing.  The big appeal of Boundless is that it is "free". Students who choose Boundless will anchor on zero - it is very hard to get people to pay more once they have embraced free.  Maybe Boundless can charge for the app (that allows offline viewing) - or a print copy mailed to them. Or perhaps the test banks etc. Will these up-sells be compelling enough to pay for the hard editorial work necessary to curate and organize the best open source content, and then map that content to textbooks (assuming that they don't lose the lawsuit)? There is probably a great business model somewhere in the Boundless approach - I'd just like to understand what that business model might be.



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