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Major Textbook Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up 278

Posted by samzenpus
from the not-with-our-books dept.
linjaaho writes "Three major textbook publishers have sued a startup company making free and open textbooks, citing 'copyright infringement,' as the company is making similar textbooks using open material. From the article: 'The publishers' complaint takes issue with the way the upstart produces its open-education textbooks, which Boundless bills as free substitutes for expensive printed material. To gain access to the digital alternatives, students select the traditional books assigned in their classes, and Boundless pulls content from an array of open-education sources to knit together a text that the company claims is as good as the designated book. The company calls this mapping of printed book to open material "alignment" — a tactic the complaint said creates a finished product that violates the publishers' copyrights.'"
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Major Textbook Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 09, 2012 @11:48AM (#39619409)

    Since you can't copyright facts and figures only their presentation and form, as long as the arrangement, structure and alignment is different, they don't have a leg to stand on.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 09, 2012 @11:49AM (#39619421)

    Plagiarize,
    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
    So don’t shade your eyes,
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
    Only be sure always to call it please research.

  • by ryzvonusef (1151717) on Monday April 09, 2012 @11:53AM (#39619451) Journal

    From the 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. (The end of each Boundless section also includes links to the text’s source material, which often includes Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Earth, and other Web sites.)

    The complaint goes on to allege that Boundless’s choice of bear photographs in that chapter reflects “only the previously made creative, scholarly, and aesthetic judgments of the authors and editors of Campbell’s Biology.”

    (Bolded by me)

    So... is that wrong? I don't get it. If it's Creative Commons, doesn't that allow this sort of thing, by definition?

  • by Penguinisto (415985) on Monday April 09, 2012 @11:53AM (#39619457) Journal

    It's bad enough that profs happily write textbooks and have a partner do a quid pro quo arrangement (each prof in a pair requires the other's pricey textbook in a given class to get around the rules forbidding you to require your own). It's worse that textbooks "change" from year-to-year (often with no substantial content changes at all) in order to keep a revenue stream coming in. It's worse still the practices used to hamper the used textbook markets...

    Now students have to deal with crap like this?

    Glad I left academia years ago. :(

  • Translation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by currently_awake (1248758) on Monday April 09, 2012 @11:54AM (#39619465)
    From the article: Those "Thieves" just copied our work, reworded stuff so it's not a direct copy, and now give it away! The question is how much do you have to re-word factual content in order to not be copyright infringement. There is a limit to how far they can differ and still cover the same (factual) material.
  • by n4djs (1097963) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:00PM (#39619535)
    how long is it going to be before the state and local governments figure out that commissioning a single book that they own the rights to as a group starts becoming more cost effective? Would it not make sense that there isn't anything particularly new in geometry or algebra that forces the need for a new rewrite of textbooks every 2-3 years? Or to avoid the $100/book charges being made for dead tree editions of textbooks? Would it not make sense to have one definitive book on the subject, and holding the copyright in common for all to use? As the cost continues to rise at rates exceeding inflation on textbook materials, it becomes more and more attractive to own your own curriculum materials so you don't continue to pay for them over and over again. I feel it is just a matter of time before this happens, particularly give the finanical squeeze occuring in state and local governments.
  • Complaint is BS (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Baloroth (2370816) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:08PM (#39619595)

    The companies are complaining not because the textbook is actually copying them (which would be a violation of copyright), but because the free texbooks are copying their ideas. The example TFA gives is that the copyrighted textbook uses a picture of a bear to illustrate the laws of thermodynamics, and the open-source version uses another different but similar picture of a bear (properly licensed under a CC license).

    Basically, the companies are claiming they hold the copyright to the idea of using a bear to illustrate a law of thermodynamics. I call that "bullshit." They don't have a leg to stand on under copyright law, IMO (well, they shouldn't, IANAL so I cannot say for certain). Ideas can, infact, be freely copied: you cannot copyright them, and you never could.

    Now, if they'd patented that idea, it'd still be bullshit, but maybe they'd have had a case legally speaking.

  • by Marc_Hawke (130338) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:08PM (#39619597)

    How similar were those pictures? I would have never thought to use a 'bear with a fish' to do thermal dynamics. That seems to be a 'non-obvious' solution. Someone else using that example would definitely be copying, even if they didn't use the exact same bear picture.

    But how is the rest of the alignment done? Is is a manual process where and editor goes through and maps ever textbook they get a hold of? It is an automatic process based on the Table of Contents? (or index?)

    It seems to me there are two important parts of making a text-book that would deserve copyright protection:

    1. The narrative text/examples.
    2. The 'flow'. The order by which the author chose to present the facts and lead you through the understanding.

    Those are the two creative parts of the textbook. Those are what differentiate it from another 'book of facts.'

    As much as I hate textbook cartels, I'd have to say that this 'alignment' process definitely has the potential to encroach on the actually creative side of textbook design, so I'd say the lawsuit has some merit. Of course, I haven't studied an 'aligned' book or the book from which it was derived. Heck, I didn't even RTFA.

  • by dougmc (70836) <dougmc+slashdot@frenzied.us> on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:09PM (#39619621) Homepage

    From the Article:

    So... is that wrong? I don't get it. If it's Creative Commons, doesn't that allow this sort of thing, by definition?

    Well, yes, wikipedia certainly does allow that sort of thing. But the publishers of the textbooks that are sueing certainly don't.

    Their claim is not that the picture itself is being infringed (and if it was, it would be for wikipedia to pursue the claim, but of course wikipedia permits that) but that the mere idea that a bear running illustrates the first law of thermodynamics is copyrightable and that's what is being infringed upon. An artistic choice was made by the author -- a running bear shows the first law of thermodynamics (I certainly don't see it, but whatever) and they think this is copyrightable.

    As I see it, it's a weak case, but not so frivilous that it should just be thrown out without going to court. They're probably hoping that Boundless can't even defend themselves against this weak suit.

  • Seriously? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Murdoch5 (1563847) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:19PM (#39619737)
    Basically the lawsuit is because the text books company's don't want to lose massive amounts of profit. Textbooks are the biggest profit business in the worlds, for instance almost every year a new calculus and physic book gets published and for what reason?
  • Ironic (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Roger W Moore (538166) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:26PM (#39619835) Journal

    as long as the arrangement, structure and alignment is different

    They seem to be claiming that the structure is copied though i.e. you select one of their texts and the site collects "open source" information which covers the same material in a similar fashion. What is so ironic about this is that, at least where 1st year physics text books are concerned, the publisher's text books have almost exactly identical structures - sometimes even down to the level of chapter and section numbers. So, since I am certain that these publishers would never do what they seem to be accusing this company of doing, I can only presume that they must all pay a licensing fee for use of this format.

  • by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:34PM (#39619927) Journal

    I'll reply to you, because besides all the usual textbook games, you hinted at the *really nasty* copyright theme brewing - one so ugly the media has managed to distract us from even talking about it!

    Entry Level Lectures in College/University.

    Those are famously just "3d Videocasts" with Talking Heads writing things on White/Black boards. A "Class" consists of 25 "Episodes", plus the 1-3 course books, plus a "certification that you know the material". Price: Some $10,000.

    If you can just get an alternative certification process down to validate people knowing their materials, then parts of the educational engine will crash, badly. I know, there's other parts of the "experience", but from the content side, Big-Ed has a really wrenching shakedown coming, maybe in five-seven years.

  • by lahvak (69490) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:43PM (#39620039) Homepage Journal

    I have fairly extensive experience with academia, and I have never seen a school that would have a rule prohibiting professors using their own books. I have also never seen professors having an agreement like the one you talk about. When I was an undergraduate student, about half my professors required their own textbooks, that were mostly available at the university store for a nominal price as mimeographed copies.

    As far as publishers coming up with a bogus "new" edition of a textbook every few years, I can assure you that professors hate that practice as much as students do.

  • by Endo13 (1000782) on Monday April 09, 2012 @12:59PM (#39620257)

    Except now you're trying to copyright an idea.

    Seems to me, there's a fairly obvious reason why ideas were excluded from copyright. Once you start, where do you stop? So a bear catching a fish is "too similar"? What if it's a different color bear, catching a different kind of fish? What if it's a different kind of animal that looks like a bear, but isn't really? Or what if it's a bear catching something that looks like a fish, but isn't? One could also argue that *any* animal catching *any* fish or anything similar is "non-obvious" and therefore too similar.

    But above all, the authors of the textbooks knew what kind of risks there are before they ever started. They knew you can't copyright facts or ideas. If you're merely organizing and explaining certain facts, you shouldn't be too surprised if someone else attempts to do the same thing in a slightly different (although similar) manner.

    This isn't really about copyright infringement at all. It's about an industry that is rapidly becoming obsolete, and the greedy fat cats trying to keep it going to keep getting fatter off it.

  • by rtb61 (674572) on Monday April 09, 2012 @02:37PM (#39621337) Homepage

    A company is producing free books, they are generating no income likely running off donations. The publishers had go togethor knowing full well their case is bullshit and sharing the cost in case the company producing free books manages a legal defence.

    This is a straight up corrupt abuse of the legal system. The publishers know their claim is a lie, they are simply relying of the company producing free books not having the money to pay for a legal defence and hoping against hope someone like the ACLU doesn't jump to the defence of the free book company.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 09, 2012 @03:27PM (#39621901)

    One of the textbook authors involved in this is a friend of mine, and he explained the situation in a little more detail.

    These companies tell the students that in a course that requires Book A (at a cost of $100), they could buy open Book B (at a cost of $5) and that not only would all the same information be covered, but the page numbering will be exactly the same. The offset example boxes would be the same. The exact order of headings and subheadings, illustrations and charts would be the same. If the prof says, "Turn to page 256 and look at illustration 3," you will not spend minutes trying to find the correlating page in your cheaper book. It will BE page 256, and the illustration will be what the prof is referring to.

    Textbooks are pricey. Sure. But this guy works hard putting out the best in his field every year. He and his staff spend a lot of time and effort creating the best product. These companies are blatantly violating copyright on a level that I think few slashdotters would be able to justify.

    Lurker

  • by Rastl (955935) on Monday April 09, 2012 @04:34PM (#39622699) Journal

    If an open source data aggregator (my bad if that's the wrong way to phrase it) can use open source and non-copyrighted material to product almost the exact same result as a copyrighted textbook does that mean the copyrighted textbook is infringing on open source and non-copyrighted material? Seems to me that unless they can prove that they came up with those facts themselves then they're just gathering up the same information.

    "Look and feel" is another concept entirely. Ask Lotus how that one worked out for them.

  • by Will.Woodhull (1038600) <wwoodhull@gmail.com> on Monday April 09, 2012 @10:18PM (#39626441) Homepage Journal

    There are mechanisms that have been in place for a long time that could be used to handle this.

    One is barratry [wikipedia.org] (wikipedia is fine for an intro, use its references to go deeper). This should be used more widely and more often right now.

    Another is the process of disbarring lawyers who fashion suits that impede justice rather than seeking it. Make corporate lawyers personally responsible for the actions they take on behalf of their employers. They are supposed to be officers of the Court, and as such are supposed to put certain lawyerly ethics above their duties to their employers. If the worst 5% were permanently disbarred (and ideally tarred feathered, too) that would go along way toward getting the rest of them to grow a pair and tell the CEO where the line has to be drawn.

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