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3 Major Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up (chronicle.com)
171 points by ilamont on Apr 7, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

In the past, the big four textbook publishers (Pearson, Cengage, Wiley and McGraw-Hill) made the educational experience better, by bringing the benefits of standardization and economies of scale to textbooks.

They are now preventing the educational experience from getting better, by fighting against the societal benefits of ever-cheaper information technology and an ever-more-pervasive network.

In fact, they are aggressively making the educational experience worse: they invest considerable resources to make textbooks harder to use (e.g., DRM, lawsuits)!

IMO these publishers are now net destroyers of societal wealth. What a shame.

[EDIT: I toned down the post, and got rid of unnecessary all-caps.]

I don't want to take words directly out of anyone's mouth, but here's a link to yesterday's discussion that sheds a lot more light on what is actually happening with the "summarization":


Everyone should read the above comment. The textbook publishers being behind the technology curve may be true, but if the above comment is accurate, it's still plagiarism.

At a certain point layout, organization and curriculum constitute IP. Imagine if I comb through legal archives and present case summaries to help you understand a legal concept. That is an extraordinary task, much MORE difficult than summarizing a case. The same can be said in producing educational material for a neuroscience or psychology class. I am teacher and I believe that publishers are producing complex "information" beyond the word order (ie. content order, curriculum) that should be copyrightable.

If you disagree, run this issue through the GUCCI KNOCKOFF TEST: would this product have even close to the same value or marketability if it weren't for its close resemblance to the original?

If they were to use the same material (in this case reworked Wikipedia articles for the most part) but not use existing layouts/curriculum would it have the same value to university students?

In my view, their production costs would rise substantially because they would need to hire curriculum experts and their get to market strategy would disappear as they lost their value to university students.

I'm frankly surprised that their investors bought the "alignment" argument.

To gain access to the digital alternatives, students select the traditional books assigned in their classes, and Boundless pulls content from an array of open-education sources to knit together a text that the company claims is as good as the designated book. The company calls this mapping of printed book to open material “alignment”—a tactic the complaint said creates a finished product that violates the publishers’ copyrights.

This is significantly different than actually creating open textbooks from scratch (e.g. the CK-12 Foundation). I'm not suprised they got sued.

Still, it's interesting to see they copied nothing but what's included in the official textbook (which is needed to cover what the student will have to learn). Once a given textbook is selected and becomes a requirement, it's publisher is given an effective monopoly on supplying a given course.

Shouldn't they be more regulated then?

Or maybe professors should be more regulated.

Agreed. Both sides of this relationship should be heavily regulated and scrutinized.

No surprise here - the 3 companies (Pearson, Cengage, and Macmillan) are the furthest behind the tech adoption curve of their big competitors & parent companies.

And the real threat is from iBooks, but they won't dare go after Apple.

If you can't innovate, litigate and legislate.

EDIT: here's a link to book mentioned in article - http://www.amazon.com/Campbell-Biology-MasteringBiology-9th-...

It's true that they are actively trying to keep their textbooks as the primary content source for as long as possible. This is their highest margin product and don't want to lose it. This is unfortunate.

However, they do have a remarkable number of digital initiatives. Checkout Pearson's partnership with Knewton for a great example.

I cannot really judge without seeing the books themselves, since the original book is not publicly available without payment (who would have guessed), the start up is still in beta and the publishers will surely overstate things.

From the description, it just seems like the boundless version is inspired by the "paper" textbooks - but inspiration and copying ideas is the source of culture. But really, I would need to see both the books themselves and the boundless version to judge.

I know the guys over at Boundless but haven't had a change to ask them if the litigation was known in advance of closing the Series A. It appears the complaint came out a few weeks before the announcement (3/16).

Fighting this to the end could eat up a substantial amount of Venrock's $8M.

Yes, and the older publishers don't have to win, they just have to eat up the capital of their perceived enemy. A common legal tactic.

I'm not familiar with the "look and feel" of books being found to be copyrightable in existing case law. There are a lot of books that are pretty similar to each other out there.

In a forum full of hackers, we should all be able to agree, information is information... Whether its letter order, word order, sentence order, paragraph order or topic order... There is a continuum when it comes to deciding what information is protectable IP. If I order 10 topics, that information is probably not protectable IP. However, if I order 10,000 topics in a tree, that is definitely complex labor-intensive information and should be protectable in the same way that an author can protect his ordering of 10,000 words.

Is there complex information in the ordering and organization of a 2000 page text book. I would tend to say yes, although I look forward to seeing what the courts say.

The only description of the service in that article comes from the publishers' complaint, and makes it sound like Boundless provide little more than a photocopy of commercial textbooks run through a ransom-note filter.

Yet "When asked to describe how his company pulls together the open-education content to produce its digital textbooks, Mr. Diaz declined to elaborate on the process" and so the publishers ended getting to establish the first and only concept of the company to a huge audience. And it's not like people can check out the website for themselves, since it's in closed beta.

Staying quiet here really doesn't seem to have been the best strategy.

They were going to be sued anyways. Why make it easier on the publishers. Also, they've been at it for little over a year so they're probably still in that period where business processes are vulnerable to outside competition. But I highly doubt that they are in the business of copying textbooks and presenting it as their own work. A business model as such does not raise $10M. Just ask any professor who peddles those over-priced "class packets."

When I was a kid I read a book by Spanish author Cervantes, Don Quijote. One of the famous quotes not in the book but somehow attributed to him goes something like this: "Ladran, Sancho, señal que cabalgamos". Translated: "They are barking, Sancho, evidence that we are riding" (advancing or moving forward).

That's what's happening here. These companies are barking because they are starting to see motion in a direction that does not benefit them and they are not ready to pivot towards.

I must admit to not having evaluated what Boundless offers. I have not idea if they are trying to copy layout and design while inserting different words in the book. Or maybe their approach is to provide substantially the same content while being guided by the content of specific printed books. I suppose that dissection will be left up to the courts.

Here is what I do know: Printed textbooks could certainly be made and sold for less. How much have algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry, history, geography, philosophy, etc. changed over the years for all but the most advanced levels of study? Not much, if at all. You could easily argue that, by now, a subject such as Trigonometry --where nothing new has happened for quite some time-- ought to result in free or near-free books. Nothing new needs to be written.

Yet, new books are printed and old books are discarded every year. And these new books are very, very expensive for no good reason. If you can buy a 400 page book from Amazon for $20 there's no reason for a textbook on most subjects to cost a penny more than this. If anything it should probably cost less.

Why in the world does a book on Biology sell for $152?

A long time ago I read a very interesting book on business failures. I don't recall the exact title. It was something like "Why good companies fail". One of the key premises in the book was that companies that might lead or have a significant presence in a particular industry tend to ignore revolutionary change in their industry due to being really good about managing their existing business.

This seems counterintuitive. Good management == Failure?

Yes, that can and has happened many times. The book covered a wide range of industries, from the back-hoe tractor business to the hard drive industry. In every case-study the authors showed how the market-leader ignored what was going to be the next big thing out of an effort to protect and continue to grow and optimize their existing business.

On the hard drive industry they tell the story of Seagate ignoring some of their engineers clamoring to build 3.5in hard drives. The managers, perhaps rightly so, are claimed to have said that IBM (their largest customer) did not want smaller drives with lesser capacity but rather the same 5.25in drives with greater capacity. They dismissed the engineers as not understanding their business and told them that they could do whatever they wanted with the useless 3.5in prototypes they designed and built on their own time. They left the company and started Conner Peripherals, which, for some time, owned the hard drive market and revolutionized it with their new small drives.

I may not have the story precisely right because I don't recall all the details from when I read the book. The point of the story is mechanism to failure, which is what matters here. I also found this presentation that hits on this and other causes for failures:


I think the bottom line is that these companies have a really high probability of going extinct if they don't learn to adapt and figure out how to evolve rather than trying to do business as they have been doing for so long. The cheese moved.

Litigation is one of the most perplexing things in business, at least for me. I've been around and have the scars to prove it. And, for the life of me I can't figure out why companies engage in this suicidal ritual for the dumbest of reasons.

One of my favorite examples is company A filing a lawsuit to collect on a debt from company B during the economic downturn. The scenario I witnessed was almost surreal. Company B pleaded with company A and demonstrated that orders had stopped and customers simply could not get financing to purchase widgets from company B. Company A --a multi-billion-dollar entity-- did not want to reason and filed a lawsuit. Company B's CEO pleaded for patience and reaffirmed that the was no ill-will here, it was a simple matter of arithmetic: Not enough money was coming in to pay debts. Whatever was coming in had to be devoted to keeping people employed and making sure that the company could continue to exist in order to recover once things turned around. Nobody would listen.

Company B was forced into filing bankruptcy. Company A got absolutely nothing out of the whole experiment other than forcing an otherwise good business into bankruptcy and loosing a valuable customer for life. Those running Company B started another business in the same industry two years later. Do you think they are doing business with Company A now?

Sorry for the detour there. The point is that litigation is like being critical of someone's looks or weight. It only breeds negativity in the relationship. It seldom produces the desire to cooperate and find ways to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

These companies would probably be better served by seeking to form a partnership with the revolutionaries in order to ensure that they are the ones who survive the transition.

There is no doubt that education will see massive changes over the next decade. And, rightly so. From books to, unionized teachers, testing, government-driven curriculum and the way education is managed and dispensed, the entire industry is, of their own doing, ripe for take-over by new ideas that are sure to make it better.

> How much have algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry, history, geography, philosophy, etc. changed over the years for all but the most advanced levels of study? Not much, if at all. You could easily argue that, by now, a subject such as Trigonometry --where nothing new has happened for quite some time-- ought to result in free or near-free books. Nothing new needs to be written.

Textbooks are more than just reference manuals. They're meant to teach. Teaching practices have most certainly advanced over the years.

I agree the price of new textbooks is ridiculous considering most editions change very little year-to-year, but please don't say "Nothing new needs to be written." It's not so much what is written— it's how it's written.

It's simply a fact that most textbooks now being published were unnecessary. The textbook publishing industry exists primarily to shuffle existing material to produce new editions on an almost annual basis (to destroy the used book market), and to produce custom editions organized according to the whims of state education boards.

The need for new material in something like a math book is truly rare. In the past twenty years, we've developed new instructional technologies, but a textbook really shouldn't be tied to a specific brand of calculator or programming language. I'm currently teaching precalculus using a 1994 edition. It's got some exercises to be done using a computer, and has some sample code in BASIC, but they're easily adapted to modern tools. I'm also making use of a textbook published in 1967, because it does a better job at explaining certain topics. Sure, the word problems have prices in cents instead of dollars, but that doesn't make it any less effective.

I'm using those old books because they are the best books I have available. I have newer books available, but they eschew clarity for colorfulness and newer "teaching practices" that only get in the way of actually teaching.

Teaching practices certainly change regularly, but whether they advance is not clear to me.

I'm no fan of "big publishing," but they do a/b test learning objects... This is a labor intensive job. That is why a new textbook edition costs historically 1M to produce(200k for a re-release).

Then explain why my daughter's 2nd mathbook teaches subtraction SIX different ways. Yep, lots of A/B testing there, lets just try every possible, confusing metaphor so the kid doesn't master anything.

Probably because those are the six methods that cover 99+% of the kids. Picking the one best method, which may only cover 30%, isn't enough.

Or did you think everyone learns best the same way?

Do you think that 99+% of the kids learn best by reading a textbook?

Absolutely not, but you have to make that textbook as relevant as possible to the widest population if you're going to require its usage.

Time is money, even in the classroom. If you spend time teaching x four different ways til Sunday, the kids have no time to master any singular technique.

The bigger question is why does teaching subtraction require a textbook at all? Surely if I asked anyone here to think of six ways to teach a child subtraction, none of the ideas would involve a textbook (or a worksheet).

I think they might. You might combine an activity with placing and removing physical things, then showing on paper how the symbols represent this, then having the child try some problems on their own. You could do all the written parts yourself, or you might use a text that had it done for you already. And then the student might practice in a workbook.

Wouldn't that make sense? I feel like bad textbooks have given the idea of text books a bad name. And I don't think this is a "no true Scotsman" fallacy. It's more an issue of mostly horrible Scotsman written to align with ridiculous state standards.

I'm not sure that teaching practices have "advanced" so much as they've changed. Everyone likes the shiny and new, even when there's precious little pedagogy to back up the changes.

In my appeal-to-status-quo, Has no-one learned before?, big-textbook over inflates their importance.

Broadly, I agree with your arguments. "Content wants to be free" and the publishers are fighting this reality. However the best way to move forward is not to knockoff their product and market it to their customers! The future does not hold textbooks in store, neither the real thing nor knockoffs...

It holds student-centric, self-paced products. The big publishers will pound their fists swatting away Boundless and miss the real revolution.

The mantra of "student centered education" was almost deafening when I was teaching a few years ago. There is some merit to the idea, but I do not think it is the panacea it is sold as. Many of us on this board were held back by those around us, or were highly individual, but I bet that having a group around you that you can talk to and relate to that are studying the same material is very useful for most people.

Also, good teachers, teaching from good textbooks, to well fed, happy students is not done often. It's not a terrible approach.

"Student centric eduction" does not have to be just single student + computing device. For E.g. I enrolled in the Udacity and Coursera classrooms. An awesome group of community TAs and Forums and study groups has emerged which surpasses the quality of at least the the average classroom in a third world country(my personal experience is from studying in one of the top 5 colleges in Bangalore).

Of course these students who enrolled were mostly self driven knowledge hungry programmers. I have no idea how it generalizes to something like learning long division or historical facts by students who would rather play video games than attend school.

But "student centered education" is definitely a boon to those who crave knowledge and who are not lucky enough to have the best teachers or the best text books to learn from.

I think you bring up a very good point that I hadn't really considered. If you filter for motivated students, a student centered approach might very well one of the best options.

I don't think we're disagreeing on your first point. A cooperative dynamic is hugely important for some personality types. I would argue that such a dynamic arises in student centric teaching.

As for your second point, I too was a teacher a few years ago. Great teachers can work wonders with a good textbook. For example there is a lot of great evidence/support for the Direct Instruction model which requires extraordinarily well curated material.

But the real question remains, how do we repair our STEM education system in this country (and many other parts of the world) for happier, more capable workers and a more competitive work force?

Student centric learning tools offer amazing potential for scalable and cost effective solutions.

"student-centric, self-paced products"

What does that even mean? Self-paced isn't a property of the textbook, it's a property of how it's used.

Publishers have no idea how to fight that. So they fight this instead.

Fighting ideas is difficult, first you have to understand it. Fighting the manifestation of an idea doesn't require that understanding. Or something.

>Why in the world does a book on Biology sell for $152?

In addition to the changes in pedagogical approaches that lead to (if not require) constant changes, there's the fact that what we know about the fundamentals of biology is constantly being revised as we learn more. When I was in high school, we didn't yet know the archaea were a totally separate kingdom, and we hadn't yet sequenced anything more than a single celled organisms.

When you add in the fact that different states will have different guidelines as to what needs to go into a textbook, guidelines that are likely lengthy, dense, and opaque, I'm not surprised that some subjects do have very expensive textbooks. Are they too expensive? Probably, but not by as much as one might be tempted to think.

You didn't actually answer the question about why a book on biology sells for $152. So, what does scientific progress have to do with the cost of a book written by a publisher who had nothing to do with the scientific advances?

Small print runs and changing content each year.

Textbooks also have better quality paper than pulp best sellers.

Then where are the lower cost competitors selling on lower-quality paper, competing on cost? Still, the question remains unanswered.

The real answer is there are no market forces lowering the costs of textbooks.

Because the guy making the decision (the professor) doesn't pay the cost of that decision. Publishers give the professors free books, and court with them (like big pharma courts doctors) to convince them to use it.

There are other reasons, like the big advantage that inertia gives you: once your book gets established as the best book in one field, at say $40, you increase the price to $150 b/c the professors already know the book, so there is a big switching cost (for them).

What actually baffles me is why people think this would NOT happen. Align the professor's incentives, and you'll start seeing some change.

Here in Tennessee, profs have to sign a form when they pick a textbook stating the cost. Unfortunately the deadline for picking books is about five months before the class, so some crappy, expensive books stick around because the time near the deadline is too busy to consider alternatives. Free books will only get you on the list for consideration.

> A long time ago I read a very interesting book on business failures. I don't recall the exact title. It was something like "Why good companies fail".

That would be "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton M. Christensen.

I whole heartedly agree here, in Lima, Perú, the major publishers were under fire for paying off school staff to get them to make their textbooks mandatory. The next day the spokesperson of the association of publishers said that programs of educational institutions that rent the book for a semester or year to the student "aren't paying copyright"(sic). Traditional textbook publishers are at the crossroads to embrace the new paradigm or die.

You're 100% correct! It's absurd in the US too. The way the publishing industry releases their attractive young female salesforce onto college campuses (I heard this from a somewhat biased source - would love verification) and then bribes gatekeepers at resort "conferences" would be funny if it weren't such a tax on our education system... But this paradigm must be overturned with disruptive innovation not mimicry!

I love this idea and I think they have a defensible position. But to make it even MORE defensible create an extra mapping layer, new text book -> old (expired copyright textbook) and use that as the outline in addition to the new text book. Material from the old textbook could be used verbatim (the seed if u will) and then supporting to supplanting information could be fused into it.

I wonder how the quality of the Boundless Learning textbooks is. Previous auto-generated books from Wikipedia and other open sources have have been completely useless. Basically just poisoning search results and making a little money off people who don't know what kind of book they are buying.

Watching the old media companies is like watching that scene in star wars where the star destroyer is on a collision path and there is nothing that will save it from the complete explosion that comes next.

Would they be able to sue if Boundless wasn't a US company and instead if it was some Asian company?

I'd think they couldn't sue them directly but the US would definitely put major pressure on that nation's government to shut them down.

imagine if Dell had a tool that let you put in a macbook model number, and it displayed its offering that is as close as it can get with the components it uses (maybe add to the thought experiment that this was back when dell was all built-to-order).

would this be a legal a problem? Doubt it. What do you guys think?

edit: as for what it's like for 'apple' in the analogy - remember that the 'dell' offer in the actual current story this is an analogy for is then delivered instantly and absolutely free and gratis! :)

I don't think your analogy really holds. The publishers don't seem to be going after that component of the business plan (that they can tailor a textbook covering the same material), but rather that literary and pedagogical devices are systematically being 'reused'. A closer analogy in the context of computers would actually be the hardware and software design. It is not the content itself, but rather how the content is being delivered, in a non-technical sense that they are going after here.

It's still kind of crud though, from both sides. Being forced to this type of litigation doesn't speak well for the publishers' futures, but at the same time, being open to this type of accusation at all speaks poorly on the startup's ability to actually create useful product.

Can you copyright the voicing and structure of a document? Even if the replacing source material was not constructed with that intent? At what point does have a structural similarity to a book turn into a copyright violation?

Copyright is for the work itself. The physical manifestation of those words in that order. It isn't a lock on the ideas expressed with those words. Reproducing another writers outline is not a violation of copyright.

but they're saying 'this is paragraph by paragraph equivalent' and the analogy is 'but the cpu is from the same component manufacturer and the closest we have, the graphics card ditto, the cdrom ditto,' etc etc, with the form factor as close as 'dell' (in the analogy) can get it. same screen size and resolution, different manufacturer 'dell' uses. I think component-by-component matching is quite an analogy to what the publisher claims is going on here. The final difference (the 'design' of the software and the form factor) might be one the buyer doesn't care about enough to justify the price difference. The final 'design' in this case is having one author cohesively write the textbook (style and tone). In this case the students might not care enough to justify the price difference, and will take 'components' matched chapter by chapter from all over the web...

the 'dell' analogy is even worse if you mean 'reuse' as it's literally the same or equivalent component (the very same or a functionally equivalent a 15 inch screen at such and such resolution). I mean, in the analogy they're by the same suppliers!

the point is that you are saying 'put in the name of the textbook" and we'll try to get as close as possible chapter-by-chapter (component by compoinent) obviously without quite hitting the actual original autho's style? Isn't this what's being claimed?

Is Dell assembling them in the same way as the macbook in a case that was a clone of the macbook ... aka a counterfeit macbook? That's what Boundless sound like they're doing.

But Dell isn't claiming the computer is a macbook. Boundless is not claiming that their textbooks are the same as book <x>. Rather they say that they are sufficient substitutes. That seems pretty fair to me. If I can't afford an iPhone, I can certainly go get a samsung look-alike (notwithstanding the design battle with samsung and apple before...).

TFA is about what the textbook companies are claiming... and they are claiming "photographic paraphrasing".

For the Dell analogy to be correct they'd have to be making these:



I can imagine Apple would commit some legal resources to research the validity of a complaint, though it seems like a reasonable feature to me.

I think it would result in a free advertising win for Apple, actually.

right, some free advertising. Now what if the tool let you get something shipped to you free, doesn't cost a penny, that's as near to the macbook as the tool can get it.

(as per the present example).

the free advertising doesn't sound so good now does it? I mean, in this gratis example, are you going to send enough more people to paying $1200+ by having this tool acknowledge that macs are a great gold standard, than the macs will lose to their free competition?

(To get closer to numbers /a bit more formal analysis: Macs, like textbooks, are EXPENSIVE. And it's hardly an inelastic demand curve, like it would be if you could try to find the cheapest and best witch-doctor, non-FDA approved herbal "remedy" that matches a real drug that actually cures the illness but is patented. Yeah, in this case everyone who's right in the head and has enough money will go use the real drug. But as for a $1200 computer vs 'dell' generic 'free'... as for a $120 textbook vs 'open document sources' generic 'free'...)

because that would be the analogy. free advertising for the $120+ textbook (actually how is it really advertising if the user has to put it in themselves, as per the story and per my 'enter a model number' example) - while offering a gratis alternative as close as the tool can get it.

legally I bet it's fine, but great advertising proposition for the entity under fire does not seem to me a solid argument in the present case...

Neither Dell nor Apple gives away their products for free. Nor will they at any time in the future, so the textbook for laptop metaphor is invalid in this case.

What I alluded to is that should Dell engage in a product comparison campaign with Apple, their approach would probably do more to highlight their shortcomings rather than convince a potential buyer that they should choose price and configuration over experience.

Those two companies may be in the same industry but they are selling very different products to different demographics. It would be like Chevrolet comparing their free tote bag for every purchase with Porsche's optional carfit luggage kit.

what? Why would price have ANY effect on the analogy? If anything, European courts have looked down on Google offering a service for free that is even in the same SPACE as a paid service ("dumping"), and an argument could be made that the tool is undermining the publishers to put them out of the business and then offer its own for-pay alternative. Other than that, the fact that it is free has zero bearing on anything. I intended the analogy to make us think about how the law applies, not to make us think about free computers.

Could it be argued that publishers' book are astonishingly similar to free open source versions i.e. they are trying to make money off by packaging free public domain information?

I think you'd have a lot of trouble backing this up with examples. Most open source textbook initiatives, including Wikipedias, haven't gotten very far. Closed source textbooks have a much longer history setting curriculum and setting a content standard for courses than open source.

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