The recent copyright suit brought against startup Boundless Learning by three major textbook publishers, Pearson, Cengage, and Macmillan Higher Ed serves as occasion, yet again, to revisit key themes that surface each time the narrative of education’s disruption by technology – especially via web-based innovations – is rehearsed. The suit came shortly after the announcement of an $8 million investment in Boundless, led by VC-firm, Venrock. Intriguingly, the suit also appears to attack the investors as well, underscoring the business opportunity (and loss thereof) that seems to obtain with any discussion that involves the Internet, new technology, and “disruption.” The second theme that we see is the well-worn “David vs. Goliath” story, and the last is the same story of education’s revolution at the hands of a web-based alternative.
So what is it precisely that has the textbook publishers up in arms?
Boundless Learning, begun by two Boston-based tech entrepreneurs, Ariel Diaz and Aaron White, has tried to revolutionize the college textbook space by providing students with a “free” option to the expensive course textbooks that students are typically prompted to purchase. As an alternative, Boundless offers online “textbooks” with open source content that is “aligned” to what students would find in major college textbooks. Central to the suit is the claim that Boundless Learning, in its endeavor to create online resources that are “aligned” to what students typically find, has allegedly encroached on copyrights held by the each of the three major publishes bringing suit.
According to the filing, the publishers claim that Boundless has created “shadow-versions” of their texts. The filing goes into additional detail, drawing attention to three examples of what the publishers claim to be copyright infringement (see: http://www.scribd.com/doc/88132655/Publisher-Complaint for the full filing). Leaving aside the still wide-open question of whether online alternatives do indeed have a “revolutionary” impact on education, what the suit does bring into its crosshairs is the question of whether and how significant the alignment of ideas and information is for student learning. We’re not talking about the alignment between Boundless’ content and that of the major publishers in the suit, but rather the alignment—or scaffolding of ideas—that may need to occur in order for students to learn. The question is how much of this learning scaffold is proprietary and how significant of a role the traditional textbook has had in constructing the very way that students learn?
Copyright law tells us that ideas are not covered by copyright. But, as for plagiarism, in this case, that is another question. And, what if the alignment between Boundless Learning’s content and that of textbooks is necessary, how truly revolutionary is their approach? And, will textbook publishers go the way of the dinosaur if what is said is true? What the copyright suit will serve to do is to put these issues on the podium and perhaps lend additional insight into how “open” open source content is when it comes to student instruction and what shape “revolutionary” web-based learning alternatives might take in the future.
Written by Jason Chu, Senior Education Manager at Turnitin.