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Major textbook publishers sue open-education textbook start-up
By Thom Holwerda on 2012-04-07 17:52:39
Rage-inducing and despicable. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, three major textbook publishers, Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education, are suing a small startup company that produces open and free alternative textbooks. This startup, Boundless Learning, builds textbooks using creative commons licensed and otherwise freely available material - and this poses a threat to the three large textbook publishers. So, what do you do when you feel threatened? Well, file a copyright infringement lawsuit, of course.

Let's back up for a second to explain exactly what it is Boundless Learning does. It is important to note this description of Boundless' activities comes from the large textbook publishers themselves, since Boundless is still in closed beta and doesn't want to open up at this point (the lawsuit might be a good opportunity to open up, to eliminate any doubts).

Students select the traditional textbooks from the big publishers that were assigned to them in class, and Boundless Learning then pulls all matter of content from free and open sources to create free and open versions of the textbooks the student selected. It's important to stress that only free material is selected - texts and images that are licensed under creative commons, for instance.

According to the large three textbook publishers, this constitutes copyright infringement - even if no text or images are actually being copied. As an example, the three big publishers mention Boundless' alternative to a Biology book (this one). The big publishers' book uses images of a running bear and a fish-eating bear to illustrate the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Boundless' alternative uses similar, but not the same, bear images, which came from Wikipedia, are licensed under creative commons, and are properly attributed.

It goes further than just Boundless, though. The textbook publishers are also suing venture-capital firm Venrock, which just invested $8 million in Boundless. Furthermore, they name 10 anonymous defendants, which include the people who are supposedly doing the "stealing", and those that benefit from this supposed "stealing".

It's no secret that the textbook industry is just as despicable as, say, the entertainment industry, working hard to artificially dive up pricing and get governments to mandate their expensive books - effectively creating a monopoly you can't circumvent.

Now, personally, I live in a ridiculously wealthy country, and grew up in a family where money for a proper education was never an issue - I went to the best schools in the country and never had to worry about not being able to afford the proper materials. However, I also know that several of my friends weren't as lucky as I was, and had to work very hard to be able to afford their education. I can only imagine what the situation is like in a country with severe poverty problems, like the US.

Having textbook manufacturers maintain very high prices for mandatory learning materials ensures that only those that have the means to do so will be able to attend the best schools - not a desirable state of affairs, I'd say. As such, I welcome any initiative that tries to break this monopoly, especially smart and inventive ones like this.

All this feels remarkably like trying to lock up learning and knowledge, which ought to be a crime. Like the music and film industries before them, the textbook industry responds to potential threats the only way anti-innovation incumbents know how: lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits.

So, do we have any industries left who haven't followed this utterly predictable pattern?

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