Why Boundless’s Textbook Business is a Vote of Confidence in the Textbook Publishing Industry

There’s lots to say about Boundless, the purveyor of free textbooks based open source materials that match up with intro textbooks from the traditional educational publishers. Plug in the ISBN of what your professor assigned, and Boundless will “align” you a textbook full of open source content which follows the original textbook all the way down to the pagination so you can follow assigned readings. They’re being sued by Pearson, Cengage and Macmillan for copyright infringement. You can read Boundless’ pitch here, the complaint here, and coverage in the usual suspects here, here, and here.

I’ll limit myself to two observations.

1) Suing Boundless for copyright infringement puts those textbook publishers in a bind. Unless Boundless is actually hiring people to do paragraph-by-paragraph paraphrases (the publishers say so in para. 41 of the complaint; Boundless says the content comes from “institutions like MIT, Rice & Yale”), proving infringement means simultaneously proving that Boundless’s product really is practically as good as their product. If they win this suit, the plaintiffs will have given open source textbooks the publisher’s seal of approval (“so good publishers had to sue us”). That’s not good for the industry’s long term financial outlook.


2) Contrary to all the hype about disruptiveness in Boundless’s own PR materials and elsewhere on the web, this is actually an $8 million plus bet on the longevity of the textbook industry (that’s how much venture capital Boundless Learning, Inc., has already raised).

Boundless’s big selling point is that its open content will match up to the structure and pagination of whatever your professor assigned. That’s only attractive if your professor does assign an expensive textbook from one of the big educational publishers and makes frequent, specific reference to it. If professors make the textbook optional or—worse-yet—assign a free textbook themselves, Boundless has nothing to offer to the student. They don’t own their own content (open source from “MIT, Rice & Yale,” remember) and they don’t claim to have a better textbook, just one that precisely matches what’s been assigned. Yes, Boundless could create their own non-“aligned” textbooks using the open source material, but so can anyone. Why would you use Bountiful as a middle-man if your professor is already linking straight to open source content?


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