Boundless Wants Trial in Copyright Lawsuit with Textbook Publishers

2/14/13Follow @curtwoodward

The legal fight over the publishing practices of Boston education startup Boundless is getting kicked up a notch.

This week, Boundless asked a federal judge in New York for a jury trial in a lawsuit accusing the startup of copyright violations. Three big textbook publishers sued Boundless last year, saying the company’s free “versions” of their commercial textbooks were copied far too closely from the originals.

Last month, the judge tossed out Boundless’ attempt to dismiss some of the lawsuit’s claims. But it looks like that hasn’t led to a settlement, and if we see a trial in this case, it could unearth a ton of information about how closely Boundless tried to emulate the publishers’ texts—and how well the publishers do by charging for those original copies.

It’s all part of a larger push being waged by innovators—many of them headquartered right here in the Boston area—to make the basic learning materials in higher education cheaper and more widely available. And some of the innovations are actually coming from inside the academy, notably Harvard and MIT’s joint $60 million investment in the edX online course catalog.

That’s not something you like to hear if you’re a textbook publisher, of course. But the lawsuit against Boundless—brought by Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman, & Worth—says the startup went beyond fair competition by churning out the equivalent of cheap, swap-meet knockoffs of their textbooks.

Boundless, the publishers say, violated copyright law by offering page-by-page reconstructions of the original textbooks. And while they may not be copying the lessons word for word, the publishers allege that Boundless used many of the same examples, put together in the same order, ripping off the authors’ original thoughts. One biology text, for instance, allegedly copies the use of a bear catching fish and running as examples of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

In its latest legal filing, Boundless denies any wrongdoing. The company, backed by investors Venrock, NextView Ventures, Founder Collective, Kepha Partners, and SV Angel, does admit that it “consulted” the books at issue in creating its own products. But in a news release, the company calls the publishers’ arguments “overly broad and legally flawed.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • nwmhqqty

    OOOhhh, the court system worked so well for MP3.com and Napster. Face it, copyright deniers: it’s a bright line and you’re probably well across it.