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Boundless Learning, Flat World Knowledge, and the future of textbooks

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 16, 2012 10:35 AM

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This week, my Globe column focuses on the recently-filed lawsuit against Boundless Learning, a Boston startup that offers online "course materials" intended to replaced traditional printed textbooks.

From the column:

In Boston, it can seem like most of the city’s population has either authored a textbook, assigned one for a course they teach, or purchased one recently.

So that makes a recently filed lawsuit our city’s version of Viacom v. YouTube, or the Department of Justice v. Microsoft, one of those cases that everyone in our tech- and education-oriented town will follow. Three of the largest publishers of textbooks are suing Boundless Learning, a Boston start-up trying to popularize free, Web-based textbooks.

Techies and students may line up on the side of Boundless, which asserts that printed texts are too expensive - and often out of date by the time they hit bookstores. And isn’t it about time the placid textbook industry was shaken up by some disruptive innovation?


But textbook writers and some educators may find themselves sympathizing with the publishers suing Boundless for copyright infringement. They say the digital texts resemble their copyrighted works a bit too closely, which could over time chisel away at the economic rationale for writing and publishing high-quality, peer-reviewed texts.

It’s one of those cases that pits content creators trying to earn a living in the digital age against consumers who would prefer to get everything for free.

Here's a bit of supplemental material worth reading...

• I wanted to talk a bit in the column about different models of offering texts for free, including one developed by Flat World Knowledge. They make new textbooks available online for free, but charge reasonable prices for the paperback, audio book, or e-book versions. And of course, the textbook authors get a decent chunk of that revenue. But as usual, I ran out of space in the column. So here's my correspondence with Boston College management professor John Gallaugher, who has published a text with Flat World.

• Here's the lawsuit filed against Boundless by Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan:

Publisher Complaint

• And here is Boundless' response to the lawsuit, posted on the company blog.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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