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Boundless Learning
April 9, 2012 10:46 AM   Subscribe

A free university textbook project Boundless Learning is being sued jointly by Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education for attempting to simulate the textbooks required by courses by patching together an array of open texts that cover the material similarly.
posted by jeffburdges (100 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
I particularly enjoyed the creative inventing of a new copyright crime, that of “photographic paraphrasing.” If only the big textbook publishers were as innovative in their pedagogy.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:53 AM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


University textbooks are a racket and place huge burdens on students. There are entire secondary, gray-market, and black-market industries which exist solely to help students mitigate textbook costs through used textbooks, rented textbooks, international editions, alternative textbooks, and pirate PDFs. The latter have recently become my favorite; I really feel no remorse for cheating the price-gouging merchants of mediocrity our of their biannual pounds of flesh, and having the texts as standard PDFs on my laptop is far more wieldy and useful than lugging around a pile of ten-pound doorstops everywhere I go, not to mention trying to navigate through the depressing and often broken swamp of official "ebook companions" when publishrs can be bothered to provide them.

If textbook companies want my business again, they can provide a cheap .PDF of the textbook with searchable text, proofreading, and a sane bookmarking system. Pirate PDFs don't generally have these features and I would be willing to pay a smallish amount of money (say, $25 per textbook) to get it.

Or I suppose they could just keep encouraging professors to make online homework (so easy to grade! so irrelevant to the actual in-class lectures!) through the publisher's locked-down website a mandatory part of classes. That works too, though I'm a lot less happy about it.
posted by Scientist at 10:56 AM on April 9, 2012 [29 favorites]


School text publishers trying to protect their cartel. Quelle surprise.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 10:56 AM on April 9, 2012


I hesitate to say I agree with this- because textbook publishers are among the scammiest scammers that ever scammed- but yeah, if they're assembling a knock-off textbook using open source materials, but mimicking the layout/organization... that does seem like a clear copyright infringement. That'd be like re-writing someone's song by taking samples of 88 notes and assembling them in the same way. The work of a textbook is partly in authoring the passages, but largely in the choices of what to include, in what way.

It's a shame, but I assume the universities get a significant kickback/profit center from selling/re-selling (at full cost, no less) used textbooks. Individual professors could shake this up by using open-source information sources, but I guess they have no incentive either- it's not their educational money.
posted by hincandenza at 10:59 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


*insert very well founded grar directed at the textbook industry here*
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:59 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hatred of the textbook industry aside, this is an interesting legal question: If you duplicate a book based only on its table of contents, is that a copyright violation?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:01 AM on April 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


There are entire secondary, gray-market, and black-market industries which exist solely to help students mitigate textbook costs through used textbooks, rented textbooks, international editions, alternative textbooks, and pirate PDFs.

One of my first big web projects was an open book exchange system I rolled out to our campus. It was super simple, just a site to post what you had and search the inventory, connect up with people to trade. In retrospect I really should have marketed it and made an actual product, because, damn, were the colleges ripping people off, and I had thousands of students registered within weeks trading books.

Ah. well.
posted by odinsdream at 11:02 AM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


The attorney who signed the complaint, Matt Oppenheim, was a lawyer in several RIAA cases, including MGM v. Grokster.
posted by shivohum at 11:03 AM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


A lot of professors (especially adjuncts) heavily depend upon textbooks to teach and design courses/syllabi. Even if they're expensive, paid academic textbooks really are necessary unless there's going to be an alternate way to fund and pay textbook authors (e.g., though government grant etc). While I'm not sure which way this case should go based on copyright, the textbooks are needed and I'm a little scared of a pure open source system particularly one with a company trying to make profits off of it (I'm not arguing if it'd be better if there were more smaller publishers rather than the giant few or that changes in the industry are needed).
posted by ejaned8 at 11:06 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


pirate PDFs

I didn't think I'd ever need more than 16 gb on my iPad, but its surprising how quickly you can fill up space with even small (~20Mb) files. But actually, most of the pirated PDFs I get I don't keep. That's been the greatest revelation for me with regard to book downloads. Its such a fast and great way to filter what you need and what you don't need. You know, you find some reference that looks like it could be useful, you download it, check out what you were interested in, discover that its not all that useful, hit the delete key.

Its such a faster cycle than hoofing it over the library and finding the book in physical form, or god forbid, requesting a loan from another university. This is exactly what we need in research, the chance to speed up our OODA loops.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:07 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If it's not a big derail, I'd love to know if similar gray markets exist for high-school science texts. The science curricula generally available to homeschoolers are crap. Locating regular ol' non-creationist science textbooks is something of a pain the arse. The publishers don't sell seem to sell direct.

Anyway, I applaud Boundless Learning, Khan Academy and everyone like them.
posted by jquinby at 11:09 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure copyright really applies here. I don't think the fact that 'page 3 should have a picture of X on it' is copyrightable, as it's a functional definition. If the professor says 'turn to page 88', then a student using a replacement textbook needs to arrive in about the right place.

I'd say that extracting the structure of a book, and then assembling a new book to that specification, is no different than reverse engineering in any other discipline. It might be a matter of patents, but it has nothing to do with copyright.
posted by Malor at 11:09 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


if they're assembling a knock-off textbook using open source materials, but mimicking the layout/organization... that does seem like a clear copyright infringement.

I'm not a copyright lawyer, but I'm not sure about this. It's my understanding that copyright doesn't protect the expression of an idea, it protects certain specific fixed expressions. My suspicion is that a set of topics organized/presented in the same outline as another texts table of contents wouldn't be a violation in and of itself, and they'd have to be doing some pretty significant and obvious borrowing from another text -- matching up on a paragraph by paragraph basis -- in order to cross a legal line.

That'd be like re-writing someone's song by taking samples of 88 notes and assembling them in the same way.

Recognizable samples are clearly re-use of a fixed expression. A sequence of concepts and exposition on them may or may not be.
posted by weston at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


"If you duplicate a book based only on its table of contents, is that a copyright violation?"

It is an interesting question, but the company does more than that. The article alleges that they also copy editorial decision like what graphics to use as illustrations (and what things need to be illustrated with graphics).

If I wrote a dissertation with the same ordered-topics as (and closely paraphrasing) a work in my field, that would surely be plagiarism.
posted by oddman at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


hincandenza: " That'd be like re-writing someone's song by taking samples of 88 notes and assembling them in the same way."

The copyright issues surrounding cover songs are a lot more complicated than that. Actually, it's one of the more reasonable areas of US copyright law.
posted by schmod at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you duplicate a book based only on its table of contents, is that a copyright violation?

Based only on its table of contents, probably not, but it doesn't sound like that's all that's going on here.

Let's stipulate that there is some value in the editorial decisions that go into assembling, selecting, excerpting, and arranging the (out of copyright, primary) texts that make up a textbook. That's the value that these publishers are claiming is being ripped off.

Now, the textbook industry is pretty greedy, and a lot of their profits -- especially in the humanities -- are built around the instant obselescence of books by putting out new editions that are only superficially different than the old ones. But there is at least some value to the kind of curation that a textbook represents, and it's not a novel argument under U.S. law that that value is protectable under copyright.
posted by gauche at 11:12 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


IANAL, etc. But this sounds more like a patent lawsuit over software, rather than a copyright claim.

Can one patent a textbook layout?
posted by Hactar at 11:13 AM on April 9, 2012


This is a really interesting case with potentially far-reaching consequences. I think there's room for what Boundless is doing to be done legally, but I'm curious to see what those limits actually end up being.
posted by cell divide at 11:14 AM on April 9, 2012


Worth noting that Boundless is a for-profit startup flush with venture capital. Calling it a "free university textbook project" makes this story sound like another round of Profiteering Publishers vs. Free Downloads, when in fact it's a clash between different business models, one of which does appear to skirt pretty close to piracy.
posted by RogerB at 11:15 AM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


If I wrote a dissertation with the same ordered-topics as (and closely paraphrasing) a work in my field, that would surely be plagiarism.

Plagiarism is clearly a reputation-ruining event in the academic world, but is it actually illegal?
posted by weston at 11:15 AM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


if they're assembling a knock-off textbook using open source materials, but mimicking the layout/organization... that does seem like a clear copyright infringement. That'd be like re-writing someone's song by taking samples of 88 notes and assembling them in the same way.

Bullshit.

I've done a lot of work building training curriculum for technical topics, and as much as I'd like to monetize ALL of the work that went into it, there is simply no way that we can copyright "particular subjects to teach, in a particular order" without crippling the concept of learning.

Good teaching -- really innovative teaching -- affects how people see and understand a given topic or area of learning. You're giving people a frame of reference for a particular subject, and when those people try to explain it to others, it is inevitable that they will carry a lot of that frame with them. Pretending that copyright applies to that is one of the worst things I can imagine -- along the same lines as patenting human DNA, suing farmers for replanting GM seeds, and so on.
posted by verb at 11:18 AM on April 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


when in fact it's a clash between different business models, one of which does appear to skirt pretty close to piracy.

It's certainly a clash between business models, but if we're going to call the new one "close to piracy," then it's only fair to describe the traditional publishers as "rent-seeking educational-industry parasites."

Personally, I think those companies and that industry needs to die, and if piracy is what it takes to drive a stake through their heart, fire up the photocopiers. But that's really here nor there as far as the case at hand is concerned.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:18 AM on April 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


Plagiarism is clearly a reputation-ruining event in the academic world, but is it actually illegal?

No, it isn't, although I don't think oddman was making that assertion.

The history of US copyright law is interesting. It's a story of ever-expanding property rights by courts, not so much based on law/precedent, but a combination of business interests and capitalist ideology in the courts. So, I don't think it's clear which way this case will go.
posted by smorange at 11:22 AM on April 9, 2012


I'd be curious to see how far from that model the plaintiffs are. I haven't done a comparative study of textbooks on the same subject (although, come to think of it, that sounds like it could be fun if I could get enough texts without spending a million freaking dollars), but I remember from Lies My Teacher Told Me that the history books he surveyed were laid out pretty damn similarly.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:22 AM on April 9, 2012


I could easily imagine a slightly modified approach modeled on the way the original IBM PC BIOS was functionally copied via a clean-room approach: One team examines the original and writes a detailed specification. Another team, with no access to the original, implements a new BIOS (or textbook) only via the specification.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:28 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


To try to turn the derail that I started back on track, I guess what I was trying to get at with the PDF thing touches more on what Chekhovian was saying above. Much of the overhead in textbooks (shipping them around, cataloging them, stocking them in bookstores, hiring people to sell them, buying them back at the end of the semester and putting them back into a distribution stream as used texts) comes from the fact that they remain large physical objects full of paper which students only buy because they must and because they are hard to legally acquire in any other form.

Some students are still going to want paper texts (I only got a laptop this semester, myself) but I have the feeling that many, many students would be perfectly happy to just hop on over to the publisher's website and download a PDF. There is no technical barrier preventing this, as the rampant piracy of scanned textbooks conclusively demonstrates. Rather, the problem is that textbook manufacturers (I hesitate to say "publishers") want their captive audience to stay captive so that they can continue charging whatever price they wish. Most of the technical hurdles (the things that keep paper textbooks the default, and keep offical ebooks such unmitigated piles of worthlessness) come directly from the fact that publishers want their content locked down as tight as possible.

If they were willing to loosen their grip, to be a bit less litigious and worry less about what students might do with their books given their druthers, and if they were able to find some way to lower their margins a bit and maybe not release a new edition every two goddamn semesters (I mean yes, biology is a fast-moving field, but a new edition every year?) then I think you'd find the sky would not fall, textbooks would still be made, and students would be able to get on with life with a bit less hassle.

The fact that this is not the case just goes to show that what we're looking at here is an industry which sees its customer base as a bunch of hapless walking wallets, and which does not consider the education of students to be its main goal but rather the generation of as much profit as can (just barely) legally be squeezed out of its captives. If a new, more holistic, more student-centric model (which Boundless Learning appears to be trying to create, though how successful they will be remains to be seen) is able to successfully compete and undercut the cartel which currently enforces the dismal status quo, then so much the better for students, universities, and really everyone in society except for the textbook manufacturers themselves. Whether or not Boundless Learning is perpetrating copyright infringement (a crime perhaps second only to terrorism in its usefulness as a means of providing an excuse for moneyed interests to maintain their oligopolies) what they are doing is a Good Thing for human society and in my opinion is something to be encouraged and helped along as much as possible.
posted by Scientist at 11:28 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Personally, I think those companies and that industry needs to die, and if piracy is what it takes to drive a stake through their heart, fire up the photocopiers.

Right there with you, but as you say, that's not the case at hand. This case is more like a fashion label trying to police knockoff look-alikes than it is like Pirates vs. Rent-Seekers. Both parties here are rent-seekers (or rather one is, and the other would like to be) — both are seeking to profit by controlling the distribution of educational materials. The "free"/"open" framing of this post invites us to conclude, based on our (richly deserved) hatred for textbook publishers, that they're in the wrong and Boundless is in the right here — but it seems very possible that if we want truly open, not-for-profit textbook publishing and distribution, then we'd want to support neither side of this spat.
posted by RogerB at 11:30 AM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Plagiarism is clearly a reputation-ruining event in the academic world, but is it actually illegal?

No, it isn't, although I don't think oddman was making that assertion.
"

Correct, I just wanted to point out that this behavior, assuming it rises to plagiarism (which is certainly plausible, prima facie), is clearly wrong. As a professor I am strongly averse to employing the work of a plagiarist. And as a rule, college professors tend to be sensitive to plagiarism issues. So, it's surprising that these texts are getting traction in the academia.

(As an aside what's the plan if they are so successful that the traditional publishers all go out of business? Who do they copy at that point?)
posted by oddman at 11:33 AM on April 9, 2012


Any side by side comparisons out there? Of the publishers' product and the Boundless peoples'?

(As an aside what's the plan if they are so successful that the traditional publishers all go out of business? Who do they copy at that point?)

Wikipedia.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:37 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


if they're assembling a knock-off textbook using open source materials, but mimicking the layout/organization... that does seem like a clear copyright infringement.

My understanding is that they're going beyond that -- they're not just assembling existing open-source materials (agree that that would be a close question); they're actually rewriting a bunch of the text to say the same things in paraphrase.
posted by eugenen at 11:40 AM on April 9, 2012


I don't claim to be close enough to the process of textbook curation to say how feasible an open-source approach would be for making truly new textbooks rather than these knockoffs, but I will say that for more creative professors, it's possible to get by without an official text at all.

Many of my best classes have featured no official textbook but rather a sort of amalgamation of excerpts, essays, journal articles, study guides, and sometimes a few small and inexpensive books covering particular topics in depth. This is obviously a lot more effort for the instructor (and a strategy better suited to tenured professors than to assembly-line adjuncts who have little control over how their classes are taught) but it seems to work very well.

Frankly I rarely read my textbooks (so many professors teach straight out of the text anyway, so it's all just review and if you take notes from the lectures then you're pretty much good as far as study material) as it is, but I'm much more likely to read a bit of literature that a professor has specifically selected as being relevant to an upcoming lecture or discussion session.
posted by Scientist at 11:44 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


It seems to me that it's impossible to judge this without actually seeing the Boundless texts. Based on the description given, I can imagine any number of things that run the gamut from completely okay to kind of shady but not illegal to probably illegal.

But I will say that I think a lot of professors rely too heavily on textbooks. The best classes I took in college had only primary sources as texts, and professors who were expert enough to provide the context for discussing those sources.

There's a line between using a textbook as a resource and using it as a crutch, and I think it's easy to spot that line by noting how many times the professor calls the textbook's perspective into question.

On preview, what Scientist said.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of my first big web projects was an open book exchange system I rolled out to our campus.

odinsdream, one of my favorite projects at my old community college job was implementing an open source book exchange. Both fun to do and appreciated by the users. (Looks like they're still using it, or at least a fancy ajaxified version.)
posted by epersonae at 11:47 AM on April 9, 2012


they're actually rewriting a bunch of the text to say the same things in paraphrase.

Which raises a really interesting legal question about the nature of infringement. What is paraphrasing and what isn't?

Let's say you're writing about geology.

Textbook: "Mount Rainier is a massive stratovolcano located 54 miles (87 km) southeast of Seattle in the state of Washington."
Me: "A massive stratovolcano, Mount Rainier is located 54 miles (87 km) southeast of Seattle, Washington."

So, did I infringe or not? I certainly changed the expression of the idea in the literal sense.

This theoretically has no end when it comes to textbooks, as there's only one set of true facts to talk about. Mt. Rainier isn't ever going to stop being a volcano near Seattle.

Until it blows up, that is.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:49 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a friend who recently spent hundreds of hours writing, and hundreds more editing, an introductory text book for a specific advanced field in engineering. I will find out if it is available in a downloadable pdf. format. Regardless, I certainly hope he is appropriately and fairly compensated. I have as much skepticism in the "it should be free" contingent as the corporate exploiters. This was significantly reinforced when I recently spent time with an excellent musician who is no longer able to tour or perform live due to a progressive neurological disease and depends on sales (electronic and hard copies) for an income.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2012


Even if they're expensive, paid academic textbooks really are necessary unless there's going to be an alternate way to fund and pay textbook authors

Bullshit.
posted by erniepan at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


How does this even work? The key sections of most of my core textbooks were problem sets: "Today we'll be looking at the 20 problems you had for homework." A generic discussion of the same material wouldn't have cut it. Or my electives either: "Translate section 3.2 into English for tomorrow's class." If the open source texts are that close they're certainly infringing. If they aren't, they're worthless.
posted by tyllwin at 11:53 AM on April 9, 2012


As someone who has worked in layout and often been commanded to "make something in THIS style," by a client, the idea of being sued for imitating a layout gives me the abdabs.

The article alleges that they also copy editorial decision like what graphics to use as illustrations (and what things need to be illustrated with graphics).

I would imagine one could find a million examples, besides Boundless, where "what graphics to use as illustrations (and what things need to be illustrated with graphics)" was identical in books from different publishers. How many different ways can you illustrate Newtonian physics, or the effects of the Stamp Act?
posted by emjaybee at 11:54 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


"How many different ways can you illustrate Newtonian physics,"

The article explains that both texts used bears, engaging in "similar" behaviors, to illustrate the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Now, I admit that my interest in Newton is not particularly strong and so I only gave him a perfunctory reading, but I'm reasonably sure that the laws aren't about bears and could be illustrated in lots of ways that don't involve bears. (That Boundless chose that illustration suggests that they want to be seen as almost exactly like the textbook in content, and that seems pretty close to clear infringement.)
posted by oddman at 12:01 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


You cannot copyright ideas or facts.
posted by localroger at 12:01 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which raises a really interesting legal question about the nature of infringement. What is paraphrasing and what isn't?
I'm currently editing some sort of encyclopedia and thanks to Google Books I've discovered a couple of phrases from modern scientific publications that have been actually cut and pasted word-for-word by several generations of researchers, each one quoting the previous one. In one instance, it went like this: 2010 < 1989 < 1971 < 1970 < 1944 < 1911.
posted by elgilito at 12:05 PM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hatred of the textbook industry aside, this is an interesting legal question: If you duplicate a book based only on its table of contents, is that a copyright violation?

I am an attorney but I am not your attorney. This is not legal advice. If you are considering using or contributing to such a textbook project, you should consult a competent attorney in your jurisdiction.

Selection and arrangement of otherwise non-copyrightable material can be a form of creative expression sufficient to qualify for copyright protection. Feist v. Rural Telephon Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) ("if the selection and arrangement are original, these elements of the work are eligible for copyright protection."). However, "This inevitably means that the copyright in a factual compilation is thin."

So the decision of which order in which to present a series of facts (e.g. the ordering of subjects in a table of contents, not the exact wording of the table of contents), could qualify as copyrightable expression.

However, this must be balanced against fair use (it's a small part of an academic work, copied for an academic purpose, and offered for free) and the prohibition against copyright functional aspects of a work. The ordering of a table of contents is in many ways functional or otherwise dictated by the subject matter rather than a matter of creative expression. Consider a basic math textbook that started with division, for example. That would be senseless. On the other hand, whether an abstract algebra text starts with groups or rings is largely a creative choice and you'll find books that take both approaches.

You cannot copyright ideas or facts.

The argument is not that "F=ma" is copyrighted because of its inclusion in a physics textbook. The argument is that the particular selection and ordering of topics in a textbook is copyrightable. So if a physics textbook covers, for example, friction before covering collisions and is based on calculus rather than algebra, then that selection and organization could be copyrighted and another textbook would have to either develop its own organization or develop the same one independently.
posted by jedicus at 12:10 PM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Elgilito, I would love to know what that phrase is if it's not too much trouble for you to recall it.
posted by Scientist at 12:11 PM on April 9, 2012


Pretty sure this idea was discussed recently, but I forget where, The "broken market";
The textbook market does not operate in exactly the same manner as most consumer markets. First, the end consumers (students) do not select the product, and the product is not purchased by faculty or professors. Therefore, price is removed from the purchasing decision, giving the producer (publishers) disproportionate market power to set prices high. Similarities are found in the pharmaceutical industry, which sells its wares to doctors, rather than the ultimate end-user (i.e. patient).

This fundamental difference in the market is often cited as the primary reason that prices are out of control. The term "Broken Market" first appeared in Economist James Koch's analysis of the market commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.[3]
The link goes to a 2006 report on the "economic impact of textbook pricing", describing how "Between 1986 and 2004, textbook prices rose 186 percent in the United States, or slightly more than six percent per year (GAO, 2005). Meanwhile, other prices rose only about three percent per year (GAO, 2005). [PDF]
posted by infinite intimation at 12:19 PM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


If the ordering of topics is copyrightable, there should be lots of publishing companies suing each other. I teaching communication courses at a community college, and for a lot of the major textbooks out there, there's almost no difference at all in the topics covered and the order they are covered in.

I have often wondered why groups of professors from different disciplines don't get together and write their own textbooks, and then make them available as e-books for a $10 download. I'd be happy to give my students a cheaper alternative. Where I am, textbook costs are a huge burden for some of the students, and I always have students try to get by without a book and then struggle through the whole class.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:22 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course, I should mention, I don't have the ability to choose my own textbooks. I don't know how it is at other community colleges, but for us it is a department-wide decision, and I have to use what the group decides. Something something consistency of student experience something something. I do enjoy the nice catered meals and freebies the publishing company reps bring us when they are trying to sell us on their books. /partoftheproblem
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:25 PM on April 9, 2012


The argument is that the particular selection and ordering of topics in a textbook is copyrightable.

If the order of a physics text book that covers friction before collisions is copyrightable, is the order of a history text book that covers the passage of the Stamp Act before covering the repeal of the Stamp Act copyrightable?
posted by octobersurprise at 12:28 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I always verify that any textbook from which I teach is available through the standard pirate channels, which was previously library.nu, but now lies elsewhere.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:28 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, jeffburdges. Your understanding is appreciated. Out of curiosity, do you address this in your classes at the beginning of the semester? If not, is it because you think you'd get in trouble for doing so?
posted by Scientist at 12:34 PM on April 9, 2012


I have often wondered why groups of professors from different disciplines don't get together and write their own textbooks, and then make them available as e-books for a $10 download. I'd be happy to give my students a cheaper alternative.

Yeah, like, each "lecture" is basically a three hour "argument", a "spoken essay", or another form of presentation of a topic by collection of resources, examples and "collected knowledge" on a topic... and daily, thousands and thousands of lectures occur... it seems bizarre that NO ONE is writing down notes, preserving their work, documenting their research (profs DO research their work for lectures, right? [Oh, yeah, side-question why don't lectures have to come with citations? Students efforts all require citations, whats up with that?] Make citations for lectures mandatory, then materials collated by professors could be bundled/sold/distributed to students for a reasonable rate) departments working with a University Affordable Resource Access Liaison (Universities DO have this as a mandate right? No? Oh. Surpise.) to "compile" those notes/ recorded lectures/topics with widely available images/graphs/data-sets... and forming the "substrate" for affordable materials that will work year to year, and also potentially link up with co-workers materials, forming a "megazord" textbook.

Nawp, guess the law is too "labyrinthine", and the gain:effort ratios "not worth it". It really is a short-sighted shame, because University "aid" often has to go towards purchase of "textbooks"... so the school/Goverment is paying many times over, and many times marked up rates for material that is collated thousands of times over, year after year, within each "State".
posted by infinite intimation at 12:43 PM on April 9, 2012


If the ordering of topics is copyrightable, there should be lots of publishing companies suing each other.

Well, bear in mind that independent creation is a defense to copyright infringement. It's possible (albeit highly unlikely) that they all came up with the same list of topics independently. Also, just because copyright infringement exists doesn't mean that the copyright holder has to pursue it, although that opens the door to laches and waiver defenses.

If the order of a physics text book that covers friction before collisions is copyrightable, is the order of a history text book that covers the passage of the Stamp Act before covering the repeal of the Stamp Act copyrightable?

Who knows? Like I said, I think it depends on issues of creativity, fair use, and functionality. For example, if the book is about the Stamp Act or specifically about the American Revolution, then coverage of the Stamp Act is probably necessary in order to teach the topic, and that ordering is the only logical one. But if it's just generally about American history from European colonization to the present, then maybe the Stamp Act could be omitted or glossed over.
posted by jedicus at 12:43 PM on April 9, 2012


But if it's just generally about American history from European colonization to the present, then maybe the Stamp Act could be omitted or glossed over.

On the grounds that another copyright holder already holds the copyright to the Stamp Act? Maybe so! Who knows?
posted by octobersurprise at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here is the complaint filed by the publishers. I hope the lawyers here will share their non-advisory perspective.
posted by humanfont at 1:03 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, like, each "lecture" is basically a three hour "argument", a "spoken essay", or another form of presentation of a topic by collection of resources, examples and "collected knowledge" on a topic... and daily, thousands and thousands of lectures occur... it seems bizarre that NO ONE is writing down notes, preserving their work, documenting their research (profs DO research their work for lectures, right? [...] Make citations for lectures mandatory, then materials collated by professors could be bundled/sold/distributed to students for a reasonable rate) [...] Nawp, guess the law is too "labyrinthine", and the gain:effort ratios "not worth it".

Judging by the "writing style" it seems like maybe you're "high," but on the off chance this is "serious"... you realize that this plan boils down to requiring every faculty member to write an original textbook for every course they teach? Damn right the gain doesn't justify the effort, especially when most courses are taught by adjunct faculty trying to get by on a per-course pittance — and when textbook writing doesn't usually count (or count nearly as heavily) in a pre- or post-tenure review as publishing one's own specialized research.

[Oh, yeah, side-question why don't lectures have to come with citations? Students efforts all require citations, whats up with that?]

Again, not sure if serious. Lectures don't come with citations because students aren't expected to look them up, because they'd be distracting when students should be focused on the content itself, because no claim to the original discovery of an idea is being made in teaching it, and because the lecturer doesn't need to prove her research and her command of the material to her students. Students who are interested in learning (more than required for the course) about a specific idea discussed in a course lecture are meant to ask for more information about it. How is any of this not obvious?
posted by RogerB at 1:06 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Question: would academics be able to take the open-source textbook and include substantial portions of it in a new open-source textbook, similar to branching an open-source software project?

For example: let's pretend that we're a few years in the future, and there exists an open source textbook that is well-written and free of legal issues such as the issue in this post. We'll call it "OpenEcon." Let's say that a group of professors decide that they mostly like OpenEcon, but it has some fatal flaws that are not being corrected. Could they take all of the material from OpenEcon, correct the perceived flaws, and release a new "LibreEcon" textbook that lifts directly from OpenEcon?

If that's possible, then I don't see the necessity of for-profit textbook publishers. If you always had to write a textbook from the ground up, you might need profit motive for that undertaking. But if you could reuse large portions of open textbooks, the amount of effort needed is significantly reduced. You'd end up with groups of professors who become the curators of the most-respected open textbooks - being on the review committee would be a big honor. And you'd have lots of grad students and new professors who are ready to write new sections and edit current sections in order to get that on their CV. Those new and edited chapters and sections would be reviewed by the experts on the committee and added to the textbook (or rejected, or sent back for revisions) similar to peer-reviewed journals today.

You would no longer have to pay writers and editors - the reputation gained by being involved in writing or editing a prestigious text might be enough. I'm not in academics and I might be giving a bit of a utopian take on things, but it's my understanding that reputation is everything in academics so that might be enough to get a large enough group of volunteers to manage and improve the open textbooks. And everyone benefits - professors get more control over their texts, grad students and young professors get a new way to contribute to the field, and students get texts for cheap / free. If a text takes a nosedive in quality, another group of academics could branch the text.
posted by Tehhund at 1:09 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scientist: Elgilito, I would love to know what that phrase is if it's not too much trouble for you to recall it.
Here it is:
2010 : Grassland Index and Ecocrop are FAO publications containing the phrase "Rhizomes are eaten by pigs" for the entry on Imperata cylindrica. The source is:
1989 : Skerman, Tropical grasses. Skerman's source is probably:
1971 : Kasasian, Weed control in the tropics, who cites:
1970 : Soerjani, Alang-Alang : Pattern of growth as related to its problem of control. But it's actually older :
1944 : Hubbard, Imperata cylindrica. Taxonomy, Distribution, Economic Significance, and Control, which contains "The succulent white stolons are also eaten by pigs". But Hubbard just copied:
1911 : Robert Selby Hole, On some Indian forest grasses and their oecology. Indian Forest Memoirs, which contains: "In India, the succulent white stolons are eaten by pigs" (page 101).
So a single observation made a person in colonial India is still absolute truth one century later. My entry on Imperata cylindrica will use it too but I'll quote Hole directly.
There's another one like this (in fact a worse one because it's about a common product and copied all over the internet) that I traced back so far to a paper published in The Philippine Agriculturist in 1922 but I don't have the whole sequence.
posted by elgilito at 1:12 PM on April 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


Thanks. Classy response RogerB. But, yeah, no, that level of granular absurdity isn't what I am getting at (also, just injecting some thoughts, not dictating, or offering "Absolute" solutions to a massively complicated situation). Would you agree that there are market inefficiencies and resulting inequalities in the current situation?

Right, having every professor writing a textbook is wasted effort, and will result in poor quality materials, by non experts, rather than top minds in a field.

Would having broad boards and Federal dollars collating that information, and selecting the "top" professors in fields to craft "Federally Funded Materials" be more "serious"?
posted by infinite intimation at 1:13 PM on April 9, 2012


It's not just the ordering of information that goes into developing a textbook (though a lot of work does go into that). Markets are consulted on what the teachers need to teach their classes and what the students respond to. Designers and editors work together to decide how best to organize and illustrate the information. A lot of time is spent on writing, editing, rewriting, illustrating, photographing (or looking for appropriate photographs), and designing these courses.

From the article, Boundless isn't just putting free information together; it's taking the syllabi and models designed by publishers and assembling a Frankenstein version of the textbooks. They're not even pretending to do anything different (from the article):

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”...

I'll agree that you can't copyright facts and ideas. But that's not what the complaint is here. And I'll also agree that there's a lot wrong with the textbook industry (full disclosure: I work for a university press), but I think that that is a separate issue from whether Boundless should be able to copy other publishers' courses like this.
posted by zerbinetta at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


and when textbook writing doesn't usually count (or count nearly as heavily) in a pre- or post-tenure review as publishing one's own specialized research.

Wow, so, because there is a bad situation, you cannot deign to imagine (and belittle people for even suggesting) a "different" set of circumstances? As in, where such activities are valued in proportion to their contribution to the furtherance of academic scholarship and education?
posted by infinite intimation at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Infinite intimation: The sarcasm isn't helping. I genuinely have no idea what you're trying to communicate here.

So if you're talking about textbooks — six hundred page well-written carefully fact-checked and copyedited tomes — then yeah, nobody's just going to whip one of those up for free in between lectures their first year teaching a course. (Though I do know some people who have been teaching a particular course since the dawn of time who have, over the years, basically written their own textbook and just kept giving it out for free as "lecture notes." People like that are awesome.)

But if you're talking about other, more ephemeral course materials — handouts and slides and outlines and summaries and such — then we're one step ahead of you! Most professors now do share all that stuff online! And it's very common to reuse materials that someone else wrote. You'll hear a lot of lectures in my field that begin "These slides come from Dr. So-and-so over at Wherever State U. He's a real expert on this stuff, and he wrote them for his course last year."

There's no mandate requiring it. We just do it because, you know, it's more efficient and the internet makes it basically effortless, so why not?
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here is the complaint filed by the publishers. I hope the lawyers here will share their non-advisory perspective.

The complaint gives an example of the alleged copying that I think does a good job of illustrating the grey area here:
An example of the obvious nature of Defendant’s photographic paraphrasing can be found in Chapter 8 of the authentic version of Campbell’s Biology where Plaintiff Pearson and its authors describe the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. To exemplify those laws, Plaintiff Pearson and its authors included two photographs, one of a bear catching and eating a fish, and another of a bear running. ... In Chapter 8 of the Boundless Version of Cambell’s Biology, Defendant also discusses the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Defendant also includes two photographs to exemplify these laws, but instead of basing its selection and ordering on their own aesthetic and scholarly judgments, the two photographs Defendant includes are also of a bear eating a fish and a bear running ... .
So the copying was not limited to the selection and organization of topics or even the selection and organization of figures and illustrations. It goes as far as the specific kinds of illustrations and explanations used. I think it's pretty hard to argue that bears eating fish and running are the best or the only way to explain thermodynamics in the context of biology. That kind of thing may be where the Boundless authors have gone too far (i.e. have either copied the original or have created a derivative work).
posted by jedicus at 1:19 PM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


whip one of those up for free
I was not saying this at all really. sorry, I guess I really am not being clear in my thoughts . Will take them elsewhere.
posted by infinite intimation at 1:21 PM on April 9, 2012


Hey, I'm sorry that sounded so pissy. I wasn't telling you to clear out or anything — I really just couldn't tell what you were trying to say and I was hoping you'd clarify.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:26 PM on April 9, 2012


Jedicus, be that as it may, this is giving me a fantastic idea for a line of bear-based science textbooks.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:27 PM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


be that as it may, this is giving me a fantastic idea for a line of bear-based science textbooks.

It's bears all the way down.
posted by jedicus at 1:33 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


So if you're talking about textbooks — six hundred page well-written carefully fact-checked and copyedited tomes — then yeah, nobody's just going to whip one of those up for free in between lectures their first year teaching a course.

(I hope I'm not injecting myself into an argument here. Serious question follows)

Yeah, that's the big barrier - for many courses, we can't expect every professor to write their own giant textbook. But what if there is already an open textbook available? Couldn't a new professor just use the open textbook and provide additional articles and their own opinions as needed by the class?

You could argue that this has tough implications for the future of textbooks if profit motive is removed, but that's my initial question - isn't there another way that this could function?
posted by Tehhund at 1:37 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I ask the students how they pirate their textbooks, and if the book I've selected is available, Scientist. There is always someone who'll explain the current favored method to the class for me, frequently they'll know said book available too. I learn new tricks this way occasionally too, well that's how I learned about gigapedia. Also, I'm uninterested in teaching remedial computer skills like typing or piracy. You don't want students viewing you as tech support!
posted by jeffburdges at 1:38 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Note to self: change industries when nestor makhno is up for election.
posted by zerbinetta at 1:57 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of professors (especially adjuncts) heavily depend upon textbooks to teach and design courses/syllabi.

This is true. I am an adjunct. At any given moment there's a good chance that I might be teaching the class I'm teaching for the last time. There's very little motivating me, other than pride, to go far away from the textbook, as that's more time spent working and I'm not sure it actually helps the students. I'd rather spend my time on helping individual students right now, working with them one-on-one, as I can do that without much lead time.

(I am allowed to choose my own texts -- I realize some people in my position aren't -- but to be honest, since I'm fairly inexperienced it's hard to know what to look for. And there are some books that we use here semester in and semester out -- default books that whoever's teaching the course uses unless there's some overriding reason not to.)

I think some students like that I follow the texts I use pretty closely -- they seem a bit nervous if I mention something that's not in the book, even if I specifically say that it won't be on the test. (Although this may be because I am taking up valuable class time talking about things that I won't examine them on!) I've known some students to complain that I stick too closely to the text, though. And as a fairly inexperienced teacher I'm probably guilty of that, especially in classes that I'm teaching for the first time - as much as the textbook industry is silly, most textbook authors do put some thought into what order to introduce topics in, what examples are best, and so on.

(As I get more experience I start to disagree with their choices more, though. But it's not so much that the authors choose incorrectly, in most cases, as that their choices are Not What I Would Do.)
posted by madcaptenor at 2:02 PM on April 9, 2012


Yeah, that's the big barrier - for many courses, we can't expect every professor to write their own giant textbook. But what if there is already an open textbook available? Couldn't a new professor just use the open textbook and provide additional articles and their own opinions as needed by the class?

You could argue that this has tough implications for the future of textbooks if profit motive is removed, but that's my initial question - isn't there another way that this could function?


Oh, sure! And I'm confident that that's how this stuff will end up working eventually. (We no longer expect students to buy a paper encyclopedia or dictionary, after all. Nonfree paper textbooks will go the same way sooner or later.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:05 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Re the bears; are they the same photos of bears used by the original publisher? Because otherwise couldn't you just as easily say "We explained gravity with a picture of Newton and an apple, so nobody else can." There are many ways to describe gravity without picturing either Newton or an apple, after all.

I'm not saying Boundless didn't steal the idea of using bears as alleged; they most likely did. I'm just not sure that you can assert a right to be the "only company allowed to use a depction of bears running as an example of the second law of thermodynamics."
posted by emjaybee at 2:06 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re the bears; are they the same photos of bears used by the original publisher?

I'm not sure but I don't think so. I'm sure the complaint would have remarked upon it.

Because otherwise couldn't you just as easily say "We explained gravity with a picture of Newton and an apple, so nobody else can."

Ah, well, see, the story of Newton and the apple is a famous fable that (I suspect) long predates any physics textbook and is a common way of explaining the origin of the theory of gravity. So it would be hard to argue that there was a copyrightable creative expression in the choice to use that illustration.

Or to give a more extreme example: illustrating supply and demand using a supply and demand curve can hardly be called a creative decision. That's just how the subject is taught and there's really no way around it.

By contrast, there's no such history or famous story surrounding the use of bears to illustrate thermodynamics, nor is it a necessary part of the subject.
posted by jedicus at 2:30 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's my understanding that the list of ingredients in a cooking recipe can't be copyrighted. If that's true, does anybody know if the order of the list of ingredients in a recipe can by copyrighted?
posted by XMLicious at 2:33 PM on April 9, 2012


Jedicus, be that as it may, this is giving me a fantastic idea for a line of bear-based science textbooks.

This is seriously a great idea. I'm imagining a book called Learning Science with Bears that uses bears in every illustration but doesn't actually teach you anything about bears. For special relativity, bears on a train. For chemistry, bears holding different numbers of fish representing protons and electrons.
posted by roll truck roll at 2:41 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was thinking of bears with cubs orbiting them for the diagrams of atoms (protons are regular bears, and fat hibernating bears represent neutrons), but that's pretty much it.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:43 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm imagining a book called Learning Science with Bears that uses bears in every illustration but doesn't actually teach you anything about bears. For special relativity, bears on a train. For chemistry, bears holding different numbers of fish representing protons and electrons.

So The Way Things Work, but with bears rather than woolly mammoths.
posted by gauche at 2:53 PM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


"It's bears all the way down."

That would be part of the bear-based philosophy series.
posted by oddman at 3:10 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd really like to see someone go line by line through edition n and edition n+1 of some basic textbook for a 100 level class and highlight the differences. Other than more graphics and a reordering of homework problems at the end of each chapter, I suspect those differences would be very slight.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:29 PM on April 9, 2012


It's my understanding that the list of ingredients in a cooking recipe can't be copyrighted. If that's true, does anybody know if the order of the list of ingredients in a recipe can by copyrighted?

I don't know if that's ever come up.

Here is the statutory rule: "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." 17 USC § 102(b).

But it's important to understand what this means. It doesn't mean that the uncopyrightability of a recipe "infects" the surrounding illustrations or explanations. It means that the recipe itself doesn't become copyrightable just because it's been tarted up with creative elements. In other words, one can always extract the bare recipe. So presumably even if the ingredients were listed in a creative way (e.g. maybe they were listed in iambic pentameter or something), one could reorder them in a systematic way without infringing copyright.
posted by jedicus at 3:38 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


That Feist case Jedicus cited is interesting and very pertinent.

It is worth noting that while the Supreme Court did indeed leave the door open for applying copyright to the order and arrangement of material, Feist basically copied a phone book and was ruled non-infringing for doing so. This is in line with the rather strict tone of the Nolo FAQ I linked and every advisor who ever bent my ear when I was young and stupidly aspiring to be a writer that your great idea for a novel isn't worth anything until you write a novel from it, and anyone else is free to write a novel from the same idea. Which is why it's cool that fully one tenth of the books in any typical Barnes & Noble are now teen vampire romances.

What's really interesting is that re: Feist, it is not the work but the creativity which copyright protects; that's why copying the phone book is OK, because there is no creative spark involved in making an alphabetical list of names. It's obvious that Boundless has very deliberately walked right up to this line and put a toe on it. Just how much creativity does it represent to use pictures of bears to illustrate thermodynamics? That is actually what this case will turn on.

It would be fascinating to watch except, wait a sec, this is the Supreme Court that gave us Citizen's United. They'll rule for the big money textbook companies for sure.
posted by localroger at 3:47 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reading through the comments I am struck by the following points:

Most textbook writers ARE professors and they are receiving a healthy cut of the publishers profits. That is, the professors don't want to give it away for free - textbook writing is probably more profitable than being a professor.

Most publishers do offer ebooks. Safari Books is an online book site that is a joint effort by many publishers. Pearson has an etext application that works on Mac, PC, iPad, and Android. Cengage and Macmillian also offer ebooks, although that link shows that Amazon doesn't like the price.

And finally, I am reminded of my TA experience in college. Some of the students copied the homework solutions from the back of the book, not bothering even to change the variable names in simple basic programs, copying everything perfectly from the answers in the back. I gave them a zero for that problem and told them in the future I would give them a zero for the entire assignment if they copied. It was a college course. One student has the nerve to complain " you didn't tell me I couldn't copy." Maybe he's running Boundless Learning?
posted by Red58 at 4:13 PM on April 9, 2012


Perhaps Disney can sue Project Gutenberg for attempting to recreate their movie plots from open sources, such as the works of the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 4:14 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some of the students copied the homework solutions from the back of the book, not bothering even to change the variable names in simple basic programs, copying everything perfectly from the answers in the back.

When I was a senior in college I had the job of grading freshman calculus.

The course was taught mostly from a set of notes that had been built up by the professor teaching the class over some time. These notes included some problems, some of which had solutions in the back, and some of which didn't. Solutions were provided to the easier problems, in the back of the book; I think the idea was that students should try those problems on their own to check their understanding, and if they couldn't do them there was something for them to look at.

Homework consisted of problems from these notes. Some of them were the problems which had solutions in the back of the book. I'm not sure why these were assigned, but they were.

Anyway, the students, being reasonably intelligent and also lazy, copied the solutions from the back of the book. I had suspected this, but the smoking gun was one problem which referred to a fraction... and for which half the students handed in solutions that referred to the numerator and the nominator of that fraction.

I think that's when I started getting cynical about education. See also: the summer class I taught in grad school where it was really obvious that the students were copying homework from each other, and I could tell who was copying from whom because usually people would copy from their friends who they sat next to in class. And they weren't good at copying; one problem had a numerical answer of 13, and I had a good student write that down, and his less-good friend claim that the answer was B.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:58 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Most textbook writers ARE professors and they are receiving a healthy cut of the publishers profits. That is, the professors don't want to give it away for free - textbook writing is probably more profitable than being a professor.

Yes, most textbook writers are professors.

But only a tiny fraction of professors write textbooks. (And an even tinier fraction of them manage to generate any real income that way. As in any other line of publishing, a lot of textbooks are unprofitable flops, or are small-scale successes that only generate a pittance in royalties for the author.)

It's a little weird to say that "the professors," as a class, don't want to give information away for free. Most professors have no financial stake at all in the textbook business. Many would be thrilled to see that stuff given away.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:19 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a little weird to say that "the professors," as a class, don't want to give information away for free. Most professors have no financial stake at all in the textbook business. Many would be thrilled to see that stuff given away.

Indeed, in mathematics there is a recent trend of posting textbooks online, for free. I suspect that some people actually come out financially ahead by doing this; sure, they forgo royalties, but they get exposure.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:26 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


this is giving me a fantastic idea for a line of bear-based science textbooks.

Forget it. The Berenstains already hold the copyright on that species.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:26 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


By contrast, there's no such history or famous story surrounding the use of bears to illustrate thermodynamics, nor is it a necessary part of the subject.

So what about another animal? Are pandas too close? How biologically different does the example have to be? Can it still be a mammal, or do we have to use reptiles or birds? Or can we not use any animal at all?

I'm being snarky, but on the other hand, this sort of copyright complaint irritates me just because it raises these ridiculous questions. I'm sure there are lawyers out there willing to parse out which species would infringe upon this company's copyright when used as a physics graphic, and which wouldn't, but it still seems like a colossal waste of time and a ridiculous extension of copyright into ideas which are still pretty generic.
posted by emjaybee at 5:32 PM on April 9, 2012


There are basically three reasons professors write books, Red58.

(1) Academic books are often written either as a research vehicle or to disseminate research, either their own new work or organizing existing cutting edge stuff.

(2) There are an awful lot of textbooks written because the author wanted to learn the material, a rapidly expanding subject lacked any sensible book, or as pedagogical experiments.

There are organizational publishers like the AMS who publish books of type (1) and (2) inexpensively, assuming you convince them of the book's value, but for-profit publishers charge exorbitant prices. Authors' receive only minimal royalties, not enough to live on. Print runs are small. etc.

(3) There are also those behemoth books written as cash cows for larger undergraduate classes. I suspect most academics wouldn't touch writing such boring stuff, except for the aforementioned pedagogical experiments, although some traditions dictate creating course notes. I believe Walter Rudin explained this best when saying "Widely used calculus books must be mediocre." Authors receive oodls form the shear volume.

All the books being discussed here fall into (3) because low volume makes (1) and (2) much less profitable. All these cash cow books share the unique feature that publishers issue new versions every couple years to destroy the used book market. Authors might feel they can improve the book each time, but basically they're complicit in large scale market manipulation. James Stewart's calculus text has reached it's 7th. Ron Larson's calculous text has reached it's 9th edition.

I believe mathematicians will nuke the publishing industry if anyone integrated latex into github.com and taught them to use git. There are an awful lot of pedagogical experiments written in latex that cannot be simply ported to a wiki, but might proceed with collaboration.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:51 PM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sadly, due to our judicial system, the cartels can bankrupt a small open-sourced company even if the latter wins the case. I remember reading a good article about this--and how it's different in other countries, with the loser paying the winner's bill--in an old issue of 2600.
posted by whatgorilla at 6:12 PM on April 9, 2012


I hesitate to say I agree with this- because textbook publishers are among the scammiest scammers that ever scammed- but yeah, if they're assembling a knock-off textbook using open source materials, but mimicking the layout/organization... that does seem like a clear copyright infringement.
What are you talking about? If you were to write, say, a summary of The Hunger Games that might be copyright infringement. But you can't copyright facts. So how can you copyright the arrangement of facts?
Even if they're expensive, paid academic textbooks really are necessary unless there's going to be an alternate way to fund and pay textbook authors
Why do we need to pay them if all the information is available for free on the web and people are willing to put it all together, which is exactly what happened here?

Anyway, kids should just download those books off bittorent and tell the publishers to fuck off.
That'd be like re-writing someone's song by taking samples of 88 notes and assembling them in the same way.
Lots of songs actually have the same chord progressions, but that's beside the point. If you were to cut words out of one book and re-arrange them so that they were in the same order as another book, that would obviously still be a direct copy. Simply taking large blocks of text and using the same order wouldn't be copyright violation.

Site's like newser just take news articles from other newspapers and summarizes them. New text with the same information in the same order (but much shorter). It's not a violation of copyright.
Plagiarism is clearly a reputation-ruining event in the academic world, but is it actually illegal?
It depends. Obviously, if you pay someone to write a paper for you, that's plagiarism, but not copyright infringement. If you quote huge blocks of text with proper citations, it could be a copyright violation, but wouldn't be plagiarism. They're not the same thing.
(As an aside what's the plan if they are so successful that the traditional publishers all go out of business? Who do they copy at that point?)
they could simply periodically update information if it goes out of date. There isn't actually any reason to re-write and obsolete textbooks every year.
posted by delmoi at 9:06 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you were to write, say, a summary of The Hunger Games that might be copyright infringement.

The great many Cliffs Notes available (probably including, any day now, THG) that suggest this isn't the case. A summary and study guide, with small quotations or excerpts, seems to be quite clearly allowed.

What would be interesting, and I have never heard of, would be a sort of "clean room reimplementation" of a novel like The Hunger Games. Perhaps passed through a language that the book wasn't written in or ever translated into, just to make sure nothing verbatim could slip through. E.g., if you read the book, summarized it chapter-by-chapter to me in Apache or better yet Loglan, and then I took notes and re-wrote the book. Would the resulting book be derivative? Probably.

But if the book didn't have any "plot" to begin with? E.g., if it were a phone directory, or a cookbook? Then it seems like it would be fine, since the content that would have made it through the 'reimplementation' process isn't copywritable anyway (lists of numbers, recipes in the abstract). In fact, the data in phone books have been deemed safe to reproduce without any sort of translating-back-and-forth-to-Apache process.

So the question -- and I don't think the answer is obvious or clear -- is "where do textbooks fall on this spectrum?" Maybe there's precedent that would shed some light, but it seems like something of a grey area. I think that it would be terrible if copyright were construed to cover the structure and factual contents of a textbook, so I am really rooting for Boundless on principle, regardless of what merits they may or may not have to the world of education. It would be very unfortunate for Fair Use if they lost, I think.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:47 PM on April 9, 2012


But you can't copyright facts. So how can you copyright the arrangement of facts?

In much the same way that you can't copyright notes but you can copyright songs. You can't copyright words but you can copyright works of literature. Jedicus and I have both linked to the seminal case on this point, Feist v. Rural, which explains the thinking behind how you can copyright arrangements of facts under certain circumstances.
posted by gauche at 6:43 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is really funny to me because I worked for a major textbook company, and half of my job was "researching" the market e.g. noting the average number of images per chapter, which topics were covered in the table of contents in which order, how the pedagogy (end of chapter and box features) worked, etc, for the best-selling textbooks on the market. Textbook companies copy each other.
posted by subdee at 11:32 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not only that, but they copy each other all the time. And this is particularly true for books targeting a large potential audience (intro-level community college textbooks). It wasn't even a secret: we'd trade our books for their books, sometimes, to avoid having to buy each other's books.
posted by subdee at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


To give the other side of the argument, though, major textbook companies do spend *a lot* of money focus-testing their books with potential buyers (who are of course college professors, not college students) in order to ensure that their books cover the right topics without over-covering or wrongly-covering them.** So a company that copied the top-selling books without doing their own focus-testing would be taking advantage of work already done by the textbook companies. But... that's how innovation works?

**Could say a lot here about the need to stay ideologically "neutral" and how this ends up watering down the material, but instead I'll just say that the other point of focus-testing is it's an effectively marketing tool: if you are a professor who has helped to shape the contents of a book, you are more invested in it and more likely to "adopt" it for your class.

BTW I don't mean to be super cynical here: the actual numbers, in terms of units sold, for the textbook industry is quite small actually, compared to something like refrigerators or iPads... we treat textbooks differently because they're books and not consumer objects?
posted by subdee at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2012


subdee: "ot only that, but they copy each other all the time. And this is particularly true for books targeting a large potential audience (intro-level community college textbooks). It wasn't even a secret: we'd trade our books for their books, sometimes, to avoid having to buy each other's books."

Right. I would love to see a textual analysis of the chaper titles of 20 different intro econ/ biology / chemistry textbooks. How many of them would have 3-4 different chapters?

It would blow this lawsuit out of the water...

"Worth noting that Boundless is a for-profit startup flush with venture capital. Calling it a "free university textbook project" makes this story sound like another round of Profiteering Publishers vs. Free Downloads, when in fact it's a clash between different business models, one of which does appear to skirt pretty close to piracy."

You know, it doesn't matter WHERE (or who: non-profit vs for-profit) the disruption of a rent-seeking non-competitive oligarchical market comes from, only the fact that it succeeds, lowers prices and increases utility for users.
posted by stratastar at 12:32 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, it doesn't matter WHERE (or who: non-profit vs for-profit) the disruption of a rent-seeking non-competitive oligarchical market comes from, only the fact that it succeeds, lowers prices and increases utility for users.

How long can the model last? This enterprise seems based on someone else having done all the heavy lifting. Once the heavy lifters bow out ("kids should just download those books off bittorent and tell the publishers to fuck off"), where does that leave Boundless Leeching?

As to what matters, well, it matters to the extent that anyone might think these guys are any less money grubbing than the big guys. (For the record, yes, I think texts are outrageously expensive. Doesn't mean they don't have legitimate case. Call me old fashioned.)

As an aside, I have to say, I thought the complaint was nicely written. Why can't they all be like that? (Same reason text books are so turgid, I suppose.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2012


So I know a few professors who write textbooks and I am aware that they all seem to have fancy cars and houses in the south of France. And at least two of my professors in college wrote the class textbook. So they are a few out there at least. Are they not true "academics"? That seems a bit presumptuous. Can someone be bright and good at explaining things? Or have a good pedagogical approach?

And yes, the big bucks are most certainly in the first year required classes like Calculus and Biology. But it's apparently a pretty competitive market, with many publishers offering similar titles.
posted by Red58 at 5:03 PM on April 10, 2012


How long can the model last? This enterprise seems based on someone else having done all the heavy lifting. Once the heavy lifters bow out ("kids should just download those books off bittorent and tell the publishers to fuck off"), where does that leave Boundless Leeching?

The laws of physics, the facts of biology, and so on are known facts established by generations of researchers before us. One can argue that the established textbook industry is based on someone else having done all the heavy lifting of Genuine Science.

The problem here is that you've got two ways of looking at the charges that are being leveled. One one side of the outrage spectrum, you have the view that Boundless Learning is basically publishing loosely paraphrased versions of already-published textbooks, violating the publishers' copyrights. On the other side you have the view that Pearson, Macmillan, and so on are basically trying to assert copyright on certain ways of teaching universal facts.

Without a lot of very concrete examples it's difficult to say which side is closer to reality. In addition, without a lot of extremely careful language by judges, it will be difficult to avoid crappy ripple effects in the world of education and IP.
posted by verb at 12:02 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Student Bay File-Sharing ‘Admin’ Walks Free
The Student Bay was a Swedish textbook ebook sharing site long before gigapedia. They were not affiliated with the Pirate Bay. In fact, the Pirate Bay admins disliked their fundraising tactics.

Shades of 1984 Emerge in Broadcast TV Copyright Flap
[in lawsuit to stop broadcast streaming site Aereo]
posted by jeffburdges at 10:45 AM on April 13, 2012


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