Publishers Trying to Close Open-Education Textbooks?

I pulled up my feed-reader for the first time in weeks, and this gem from The Chronicle waiting for me a few days ago: 3 Major Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up.  I knew it was coming… and I’m sure many, many more will follow.

A lot of professors have been pulling together their own materials to teach their classes, rather than requiring students to buy expensive texts.  There’s a growing niche market for small start up companies who make it simple for professors (or students) to create their own texts by using open-source content found online. Boundless Learning is one such start up company.  Their About Me page explains that they are “. . .making the world’s open educational content more useful for students by connecting them with the wealth of high quality, openly licensed, and free educational content that has been created by leading educators and institutions over the last 20 years.”

Boundless is being sued by 3 major textbook companies for “stealing” their author’s ideas. Mind you, Boundless isn’t actually taking content from these textbooks. They are pulling the same concepts that are used in the textbooks from other sources. But I found this little quote somewhere buried in the middle of the Chronicle article:

To illustrate this claim of intellectual theft, the publishers’ complaint points to the Boundless versions of several textbooks, including Biology, a textbook authored by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece. The Boundless alternative, the complaint alleges, is guilty of copying the printed material’s layout and engaging in what the complaint calls “photographic paraphrasing.” In one chapter of the printed book, for instance, the editors chose to illustrate the first and second laws of thermodynamics using pictures of a bear running and a bear catching a fish in its mouth. Boundless’s substitute text uses similar pictures to illustrate the same concepts—albeit Creative Commons-licensed images hosted on Wikipedia that include links to the source material, in accordance with the terms of the open license. (My emphasis)

I have never in my life heard of “photographic paraphrasing.” But I have a feeling that with Apple’s release of iAuthor and several other developments that make course packages much easier to create and maintain, we’ll be hearing that term a lot more over the next couple of years.

Of course textbook companies are getting nervous–why would they want students to use free, open-source material instead of their $200 textbooks that weigh 20 pounds? (I actually think I might have my psychology and biology textbooks from undergrad somewhere…just because they cost so much.)
I posted about Alternative Textbook options several months ago on my blog. Textbooks cost way too much and the material isn’t usually updated fast enough. Why wouldn’t people start to explore other options!? A lot of faculty are doing this–and entire departments are beginning to encourage it! Temple University, for example, began an alternative textbook project last fall, and many of their faculty encourage their students to actively take part in building the course content and course readings. I think this is a brilliant idea–and one I planned to integrate into my own pedagogy… but I’ll admit articles like the one in the Chronicle about Boundless Learning make me a little nervous.
 I should probably also mention that Boundless wasn’t selling their services–it’s free for both students and teachers. If teachers aren’t selling the the materials to students, and if Boundless isn’t charging its users, how is this different than what most of us currently do? A lot of us use texts in our courses that are in the open domain. We attribute them to their original authors and we certainly don’t sell the materials to our students.
Is the Boundless case different because all the material is being packaged and published in one central place? Or simply because the textbook industry is taking a hit.  Boundless is offering our students an easier alternative to buying pricy textbooks that they often can’t sell back at the end of the semester?
How is this changing what we think about intellectual property?
And how will this affect the way we use our learning management systems, like ULearn or Desire2Learn? Desire2Learn, for example, allows instructors to connect directly to OERs (Open Education Resources). Since GSU has plans to move to Desire2Learn in near future, what should instructors be aware of? Will it change the types of materials and resources we can link to and use?
Lots going on in the textbook publishing world these days…and I have a feeling we’ll be reading about many, many more cases like Boundless’s recent suite before it’s all over.

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