The Boundless Open Textbook Initiative Has Evolved But Its Future Is Marred By Lawsuits

Our education system is broken, from lower-level public schools all the way up to higher learning. EdTech startups are coming at the numerous problems from every angle. Boundless, a startup out of Boston, is aiming to offer an open alternative to the college textbook.

But major publishers like Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group aren’t so thrilled with the thousands of beta testers across 2,000 universities in the U.S. enjoying Boundless’ free and open alternatives. Students using the beta product rated the Boundless’ platform 50 percent higher than physical textbooks, and the average grade for users was a B+, with 80 percent saying they received grades they wanted or higher.

The top three publishers sued Boundless in March of 2012, but just as the company said it would, Boundless has evolved and moved out of beta with various new publicly live products. The company raised an $8 million Series A round, led by Venrock in April 2012.

Boundless has now filed an Amended Answer and Counterclaims with the court, asserting that Boundless no longer offers the products being charged with three counts of copyright infringement, one for unfair competition, and one for false advertising.

Boundless is now asking that the plaintiffs take a look at the new products and determine whether or not they also allegedly infringe. It’s unclear if this can or will affect the current court case, which is against the now-extinct beta product. In either case, the publishers seem adamant to ignore the evolution of Boundless’ products and let the ruling for the beta product determine the future of the startup.

Boundless founder and CEO Ariel Diaz tells TechCrunch that neither the beta nor the current products are infringing any copyright, since the content is sourced from publicly available information, or Open Educational Resources (OER).

In an email to the plaintiffs, Boundless’ counsel asks for more clarity about the plaintiffs’ intentions for Boundless’ current live products.

Given that there is some overlap in the content of [the beta product] and [the current products], our client is concerned that Plaintiffs will claim that Boundless’ aforementioned works infringe Plaintiffs’ textbooks only after this case ends. Our client would prefer not to conduct its business under such a cloud of uncertainty.

In other words, Boundless simply wants to know if it will be slapped with yet another lawsuit for its current products after the lawsuit on its currently unavailable beta product ends.

Here’s how the publishers’ counsel responded:

With all due respect, Plaintiffs are under no obligation to monitor and analyze those changes, factually and legally, on an ongoing basis. Plaintiffs are also not under any obligation to respond to your client’s request that they research and evaluate whether they have new claims that could potentially be added to their case at this time. It is not realistic to litigate against a moving object even if we wanted to, which we do not.

He goes on to say…

We have little doubt that the Court’s resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims will inform your client’s current and future business practices.

As it stands, 80 percent of the market is controlled by four top publishers, who all generally provide the same content in the same order. Much of that content is also readily available as OER, which Boundless takes advantage of to offer accessible course materials to students. Prices have been jacked up three times that of inflation, according to Boundless.