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Publishing giants sue open textbook startup over layout

Suit alleges web firm nicked pagination, image-labelling

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A copyright lawsuit has pitted three of the four big American textbook publishers against a web startup in a dispute over the layout of textbooks.

Facts may not be copyrighted, but how they are laid out is, contends the joint complaint that publishers Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education filed last month in US District Court in Southern New York.

Though educational start-up Boundless claims to use only free information and non-copyrighted text to fill the textbooks that it gives away free online, the big publishing firms claim that Boundless has copied their structuring down to the pagination and image-labelling.

The Massachusetts startup now has a hefty lawsuit on its hands before the product has even made it out of beta. The web firm has already gathered $8m in venture funding.

The lawsuit from the publishers states:

Rather than produce its own textbooks, Defendant steals the creative expression of others, willfully and blatantly violating the Plaintiffs' textbooks.

Though the publishers acknowledged Boundless isn't making any money out of its business - it gives away textbooks for free - the suit said that it was exploiting and profiting from the publishers' intellectual property and alleged that the start-up had hopes of "monetise" the Boundless site later on.

Defendant exploits and profits from Plaintiffs’ successful textbooks by making and distributing the free “Boundless Version” of those books, in the hope that it can later monetize the user base that it draws to its Boundless Web Site. In short, Defendant seeks to build its business upon Plaintiffs’ intellectual property rights.

They also accused Boundless of paraphrase copying:

The defendant generates these "replacement textbooks" by hiring individuals to copy and paraphrase from Plaintiff's textbooks. Defendant boasts that they copy the precise selection, structure, organisation and depth of coverage of Plaintiffs' textbooks and then map-in substitute text, right down to duplicating Plaintiffs' pagination.

Ripe for disruption

Boundless blogged about the suit just before Easter, two weeks after the complaint was lodged on 16 March, laying out the case for their Wikipedia-style textbooks.

In the post, the startup described the textbook industry as "ripe for disruption", comparing it to the music industry 10 years ago.

According to Businessweek, figures quoted by Boundless, textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation and in another survey they quote by higher education mag The Chronicle, it was reported that seven-out-of-10 of American college school students said they had skipped buying a textbook because of the price.

In the blog, Boundless vows to fight the case "vigorously".

However the self-professed "technology entrepreneurs" who have little background in education or pedagogy may have a hard time fighting off the case. Especially with claims on their own website that their Boundless Version covers "100 per cent of the same concepts in the same order and depth as your assigned text" [a phrase quoted in the lawsuit, available in the google cache but now offline].

In one particular, a psychology textbook from Macmillan used a photograph of Johann Brahms to illustrate a section on sleep disorders – citing his sleep apnoea. The Boundless-equivalent psychology textbook also illustrates its sleep disorder section with a photograph of Brahms mentioning that he suffered from sleep apnoea. The publishers claim that such examples are pervasive.

The publishers are seeking damages, the destruction of the business and lawyers' fees. ®

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