Some Scholarly Kitchen readers will be familiar with Boundless, a company that was founded in 2011 with a very interesting modus operandi: it would take freely-available information from the open Web and arrange it in formats that mirrored the layout and pagination of popular (and usually very expensive) academic course texts. So the idea was that if your professor required you to buy a $200 introductory physics text, a Boundless version of that text would provide the same information (phrased differently, of course, since it came from other sources) illustrated by similar (though not identical) figures and photographs, on the same pages. If your professor assigned you to read chapter 3 of the expensive textbook before the next class period, you could instead read chapter 3 of the free Boundless version and get a different expression of the same information.
Since you can’t copyright either an idea or, generally speaking, the order in which ideas are presented, Boundless apparently believed that it was operating comfortably within the law. Textbook publishers—unsurprisingly enough—felt differently, and in 2012 the company was sued by Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education. These companies charged that by copying “the distinctive selection, arrangement, and presentation” of their textbooks, “along with other original text, imagery, and protected expression of Plaintiffs and their authors,” Boundless was in fact in violation of copyright law.
To illustrate the principles at issue here: I can’t copyright the phrase “a recursion is any kind of inductive definition.” However, if I write a lengthy explanation of that mathematical principle, using my own words, I can claim copyright in the explanation. Boundless’ business model was founded on the belief that a differently-worded explanation of the same principle would not constitute a copyright infringement, since it’s the explanation that is protected by copyright, not the principle itself; the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was built on the belief that even if the expression of each idea is different, duplicating their systematic presentation of a progression of ideas and replicating the look and feel of that presentation did constitute a copyright infringement.
Had the lawsuit gone to trial, it would have been a very interesting moment in the history of copyright law and would likely have helped settle some vexing questions—notable among them the question of when and whether one presentation of factual information can be considered duplicative or derivative of another one under copyright law.
But the lawsuit was settled out of court. According to one published report, the settlement included Boundless’ agreement to
stop marketing its books as “Boundless versions” or “copies” of their textbooks. Second, the company would stop “aligning” its products to the ones it hopes to replace without permission and stop using the plaintiffs’ book images in its own marketing materials without permission. And it would pay the plaintiffs $200,000 apiece.
If you go to Boundless’ website today, you notice a few interesting things. First, instead of offering “Boundless Versions” of popular textbooks, they now offer “Boundless Alternatives” to them. More interestingly, these alternative versions are no longer free—they cost $19.99 apiece. In addition to these, Boundless now offers original textbooks, which are available for free. Open one up and you see some of the ways in which Boundless hopes to make its money: a pop-up window offers to help you find a tutor in the textbook’s subject via Chegg, a fee-based online tutoring-and-textbooks provider. There are also ads on many pages, though apparently one may register with Boundless at no charge and the ads go away.
A few thoughts on all of this:
First, the difference between free and $20 is a very significant one in percentage terms, but not a huge one in terms of absolute dollars—especially if you’re looking for a version of (oops, sorry, an alternative to) a $200 textbook. Boundless now offers more than 500 texts; if it is able to create a critical mass of acceptable textbook alternatives, its potential to disrupt the textbook market is considerable.
Second, the word “acceptable” in the preceding paragraph points to a reality that some may find disturbing, but is a reality nonetheless: ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the teaching faculty find these alternative textbooks acceptable. It only matters whether the students do. If students are able to get grades that they are pleased with by using Boundless Alternatives (or Boundless Originals), and they spread the word to their peers that this works, the impact will spread quickly. This is probably an eventuality that the textbook industry should take seriously.
Third, whether Boundless is successful as a company in the long run doesn’t matter very much. What does matter is whether this model proves out in concept—meaning whether Boundless books prove popular with students. If they do, then imitators of Boundless will arise quickly, experimenting with different business models. The textbook market is under unbelievable pressure at the moment; as the father of college students I can attest to this personally. Students (and their parents) are becoming increasingly sophisticated at finding ways around buying expensive textbooks at list price, but are still feeling very resentful at what it costs to get them. This resentment represents a real, powerful, and widespread market pressure. Combine that pressure with the enormous and growing amount of free and high-quality information available on the open Web, and I believe you have the potential for major change in that marketplace.
Last, the pressure I just alluded to is given extra energy by the presence in the marketplace of people for whom the idea of paid access to scholarship is unacceptable in principle, completely beyond questions of price. Boundless may not demonstrate that money can be made offering free alternatives to pricey textbooks—but if they show that it can be done at all, even at a financial loss, there may well be people and organizations that will be willing to step up and do it without the prospect of making any money, as a labor of love and/or revolution. How many people will be willing to do that? Probably not very many. How many will it take to cause a lot of indigestion for traditional textbook publishers? That’s the interesting question.