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$8M in Funding and a Lawsuit to Boot? Game on. (boundless.com)
73 points by aaronwhite 1603 days ago | hide | past | web | 43 comments | favorite

The lawsuit is mentioned in the title, but glossed over in the blog post. The blog post claims that the publishers are trying to "copyright facts."

But the actual complaint ( http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/new-yor... ) suggests that the publishers allege much more. You don't have to agree with the publisher's claims (you obviously don't), but be fair and give the full picture.

The publishers claim that Boundless is copying the chapter titles, subtitles, subheadings, and pagination of each book, using pictures of the book as marketing materials, and then paraphrasing 100% of the text of each book.

It's true that you can't copyright facts, but paraphrasing on such a fine level is often considered copyright infringement. Even Wikipedia forbids close paraphrasing unless the original material is in the public domain or there is absolutely no other way to express it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Close_paraphrasing

Universities also consider close paraphrasing to be plagiarism: http://library.csusm.edu/plagiarism/howtoavoid/how_avoid_par...

And a court 100-ish years ago found that a close copy of an economics textbook was a form of copyright infringement, in a very similar pre-digital case (it's not like the digital era is the first time that people have noticed that books are expensive):http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macmillan_Co._v._King

Should that doctrine apply here? Is it a good doctrine in the digital era? There's room for debate. But you'd never know that from the blog post.

Page 15 of the complaint is fairly damming. Apparently "Campbells Biology" uses a bear eating a fish + running to explain thermodynamics and even this example appears in their version... It might possibly be legal, but I feel it shouldn't be.

Similarly (from one page later): a Psych textbook used Brahms to illustrate "Sleep disorders" (the general idea), because he apparently suffered from sleep apnea. The Boundless text apparently also chose Brahms to illustrate "sleep disorders".

Again, at the moment, only half the story is being shared. We look forward to publicizing our side once we can!

But you're the one who publicized it! We're only talking about it because you submitted this one-sided blog post. You shouldn't be surprised that a bunch of message board nerds would actually track the filing down.

What is the law regarding copying the fine-scale structure of a book but rewriting it/redoing the pictures?

It does not in & of itself appear promising for Boundless.

(I am one of the founders of Boundless)

Believe me, we would love to go into very, very specific detail on exactly what is covered in the complaint, unfortunately talking publicly about details in the suit is taboo/off-limits. Further, our response isn't yet filed, which would provide some of that detail.

But it's telling they chose to pursue litigation instead of any other form of out-reach.

The textbook publishers haven't gone into very, very specific detail yet; they've only provided the amount of detail required to file a suit against Boundless.

If you've infringed their content, for instance by knowingly paying contractors to create 1:1 versions of copyrighted textbooks down to specific analogies and figures (like the Smokey the Thermodynamics Bear), why would it be on them to pursue any other form out outreach? You'd have committed a tort against them. They're entitled to relief. It's on you not to violate their copyright.

It's a little annoying that you're trying to leverage people's sentiment about textbook publishers so actively. Right is right and wrong is wrong, even when we don't like the people who've been wronged. It's actually even more wrong, since it casts a pall over everyone else trying to modernize the economics of textbooks.

You appear to be rushing to judgement by saying "they're entitled to relief." The items in the complaint are all allegations which have yet to be proven in a court of law. I'm hoping that you meant that to be part of your hypothetical statement and simply got carried away.

Infringement is not necessarily a simple matter. Oracle pointed to what appeared to be direct copying of Java files by Google. But the truth turned out to be considerably more complex. The result is still uncertain, but there are good reasons to question whether even something like that will be enough to support a claim of infringement.

Now, I don't know how things will play out in this case. But that's my point, because none of us know. We don't have to pick sides today, though.

You missed the word "if" in my comment.

I didn't miss it; it was part of a different sentence and it honestly didn't sound like it still applied once you got going.

I'm glad that I was correct to assume the best, though.

> But it's telling they chose to pursue litigation instead of any other form of out-reach.

Yeah, but what it's telling of is similarly open to debate. You'd probably say that that is proves they can't innovate or something in that direction. They might say that it's such an obvious and easy win that they don't even need to bother discussing it with you.

I'd say it's what happens when business models are threatened. In terms of 'obvious' we & our team of lawyers strongly disagree.

Well of course you disagree. I'm only pointing out that your blog post and your comment above don't represent a neutral view of the likely outcomes of this litigation given the evidence we have at hand. I'm not picking sides here, because I don't know any of the facts, and I'm not suggesting you're a bad person for your bias. Any of us would be equally biased in your shoes. I'm just trying to point out a more balanced view than what you're giving us. Truth-seeking, in other words.

Also, it's worth noting that a violent reaction to a business model being threatened is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, let's suppose someone is looting your shop. Do you allow them to do so, or do you take out the baseball bat behind the counter? If the looter said, "Hey, you're only getting out that bat because your business model is being threatened," that would probably not be compelling to you or to any bystanders that happened to be about.

Again, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that what you are doing is equivalent to looting. I'm only trying to point out that other readers ought not take your side simply because you think you're threatening someone's business model.

If I was your lawyer I'd tell you to stop blogging or commenting on HN immediately. You're about to lose big. Take it from someone who has had their word used against himself 10 years later.

I'm curious if you've reached out to the big players in the textbook oligopoly before this?

As to their lawsuit, good luck. I never understood why my books were so expensive (early 2000s). Of course if you're using the chapter titles of their texts as someone mentioned, I'm not an expert on copyright law, but it just feels wrong.

Really? To me it sounds very similar to Cliffs Notes, which summarizes, chapter by chapter, books covered by copyright.


Summarizing may legally be different than re-writing however, so it'll be interesting to see where the case goes.

From Cliffs Notes:

"a tool to help you understand literature."

Cliffs Notes is "fair use".


The same way you can review a movie in the local paper or even a TV station can do a movie review and use short clips.

So while it would be possible to discuss and give examples of how a textbook presented information (as a critique of that textbook) you can't copy it (apparently as being claimed) in the way boundless is doing.

As the OP pointed out we will know more when they file their response.

I'd love to get into it, and I can say we aren't rewriting their content.

The publishers claim doesn't hang on you rewriting their content. They say you've "[copied] the precise selection, structure, organization, and depth of coverage in [their] textbooks and mapped in substitute text, right down to duplicating [the publishers] pagination", and that you "[took] hundreds of topics, sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics that comprise [the publishers] textbooks and copied them into Boundless texts, even presenting them in the same order, and keying their placement to [publishers] actual pagination"; also, that you "[copied] or [paraphrased] with respect to the substance of hundreds of photographs, illustrations, captions, and other original aspects of [publishers] textbooks".

Look, most of us on HN have read many college textbooks. I think we all recognize that way more goes into a textbook than just the prose.

I'm not judging you, just message-board-nerding your comment here. This is pretty common in threads about legal actions. "We didn't do XXYM", where /\AXX..\Z/ is what's been alleged.

Allowing Smokey the Thermodynamics Bear was a super bad idea, by the way.

There are two stories that make sense to me:

1. In order to profit from references to the source text's section+page numbers, they took care to edit, reorder, and adjust layout so that the identity mapping suffices. This makes me wonder: what compromises did they have to make to achieve this? Why didn't they just provide an easy to use lookup index?

2. They copied the texts, thinking that paraphrasing would protect them. (or laxly supervised contractors/employees who resorted to copying)

Both seem plausible to me.

The ruling that allows copying facts from others is SCOTUS's (Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 111 S.Ct. 1282 (1991).

As you imply, the ordering of the facts constitute a creative expression, which is not the same as an arbitrary arrangement of facts: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/can-you-copy-raw-data.... (Unless it's an alphabetically-ordered phone book or something to that effect.)

"Rural's white pages do not meet the constitutional or statutory requirements for copyright protection".


"This case concerns the interaction of two well-established propositions. The first is that facts are not copyrightable; the other, that compilations of facts generally are."


"The key to resolving the tension lies in understanding why facts are not copyrightable. The sine qua non of copyright is originality. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author."

Thanks for the informative link. From the complaint, the evidence is pretty clear that it's a copy with a paraphrasing. Even their web site (according to the complaint) boasted that as a school teacher, you don't have to change your book, theirs covers the same content in the same order, just free.

Am I the only one that really has NO idea what Boundless does?

"Boundless is putting students back in control of their education." is extremely vague.

Could they possibly just summarize what their product is? I'm guessing this is some kind of e-textbook? What is a textbook replacement? Are you replacing the physical format of a textbook into an eBook? Are you proposing an alternative (like interactive learning?)

But if the textbook publishing industry is suing you, you must be doing something right.

Happy to answer. I am one of the founders of Boundless.

The first iteration of our product gave a student a 100% free alternative to buying their expensive textbook. The product is completely digital with search functionality, notes, highlights, etc. Very similar to an e-text, but a more elegant experience (and of course free!).

We did that by leveraging something called Open Educational Resources (OER). OER is open source content developed by top institutions, organizations, and educational individuals. It sits in unorganized databases which makes it hard for a student or professor to adopt. We bridge the gap between the OER content and the student.

Ultimately this is our first step. We don't consider ourselves a textbook company. No student wants to read hundreds of pages of text. Now that we have a great base of content, we will be redefining the user experience so that the user can focus on bite sized pieces of information rather than long form text.

Let me know if you have other questions.

Change your homepage text from:

"Tired of spending thousands on college only to be forced to use educational products that you don't like? It’s time for a change. Boundless is built directly for students like you, tailored to each of your courses so that you can ditch the expensive textbook, master the essentials and boost your grade."


"Boundless replaces your textbooks. It's free."

Hah! Love it :)

I'm in the same position of antonse - can you spell it out a bit more? Suppose I'm a student studying course X at institution Y with course textbook Z - I sign up to Boundless, and what do I actually get? A summary of Z? Or something else?

> Everyone has a favorite teacher, but no one has a favorite textbook

I disagree. I bet if you went over to Reddit and asked on /r/math or /r/physics, you'd find plenty of people who have a favorite textbook. For example, I'd say Apostol's "Calculus", volume 1, is a favorite textbook of mine. I've read it 3 or 4 times over the last 30 years. The Feynman Lectures on Physics are another favorite of mine.

> 4x more expensive/less accessible/same form factor

(that's from their infographic, comparing textbooks in the '60s to now. It was on three lines there, which I've marked with slashes to fit the quote on one line)

Based on inflation, they should be about 6x more expensive, so if that 4x figure is right textbook prices have improved since the '60s. However, I suspect that they are a little low in their estimate here. I think prices have gone up faster than inflation.

I don't see how text books have become less accessible since the '60s.

> There’s one other major concern: textbooks are just flat-out terrible products. They’re ineffective pedagogical tools: dense collections of long-form text that fail to engage students’ wide range of learning styles

This may be true for the less technical fields, but I have yet to see anything better for, say, a rigorous upper level math course.

I agree; it's a really, really weird thing to say, especially if the person has studied computer science - maybe he's yet to read what he finds to be a good textbook? My favourite teacher in high school showed me that certain subjects can actually be interesting, intelligible and enjoyable, and my favourite textbook so far off the top of my head (The Algorithm Design Book) did the exact same.

Great and awful professors and books tend to make an impression, and people on Hacker News could go on forever on algorithm books.

Yes, there is some selection bias both ways ;-)

To be fair, the reason you haven't seen anything better is because very few people are able to get traction in the face of deep, deep entrenchment. Have you watched Bret Victor's "Kill Math" video? Imagine if most technical courses had that kind of interactive material. But right now, they won't, because the barriers to entry are artificially high and incumbents aren't innovating.

Then why not just produce content like "Kill Math", rather than cloning textbooks? How is a 1:1 clone of an existing textbook --- Boundless texts are allegedly pitched to professors as clones, and branded "The Boundless Version of XXX" --- "innovation"?

I completely agree. I went to a university and thought the researchers they hired to teach me were, on average, terrible teachers. Fortunately the textbooks were good enough that the professor could half-assed teach the class and I could learn the material on my own. Without textbooks a university education would be a complete joke.

> I don't see how text books have become less accessible since the '60s.

Everything else has become far more accessible though.

There's no reason an electronic math textbook couldn't generate unique problems for each student and even grade them, for example. And if they could ever integrate something like Maple a lot of possibilities would open up.

I think we're already trending in that direction, though, so it's more a matter of who will build it.

No one likes the big textbook companies, but what Boundless is doing is clearly breaching copyright law. It seems they are hoping public pressure will save them, but I don't think most people are naive enough to agree the way they are doing things is ok. The open resources they are copying from, that's the way to replace textbooks.

I love that you are working on this. It's one problem that I really want fixed.

But, your description doesn't impress and convince me. I'd drop at least more than half of the document. I'd drop most of the description about the problems with current textbooks and all the vague sales pitches. I'd focus on why your solution is better.

As I am reading this, I got the impression that you don't have much except being free and online.

Where does the content come from? Are the authors a good reference? How do you plan on making money? With annoying ads?

And the lawsuit seems like a different document. Used for publicity?

Why don't students just scan & torrent the texts? They already do that for their music collections.

They do -- when I was an undergrad there was a zip file that made the rounds with textbooks and old exams for many of the core courses.

Only one of these is valuable to them, and coincidentally is also the one that comes out of their own pocket.

Being sued is proof that you made it. Congrats!

Congrats Ariel, Aaron, and Brian! Textbook industry needs disruption.

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