Boundless Learning, $8M in Tow, Raises Ire of Textbook Publishers

A Boston-based edtech startup is getting an education of its own: if you mess with an entrenched industry, the major players are going to mess with you. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The startup just might have the resources and wherewithal to fight back.

Boundless Learning, which serves up free, open educational content to college students, said today it has raised an $8 million Series A round led by new investor Venrock. All existing investors, including NextView Ventures, Founder Collective, Kepha Partners, and SV Angel, also participated. This brings the total funding for Boundless, a 13-person company, to $9.7 million.

More interesting is that the company revealed this week that three major textbook publishers—Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan Higher Education)—have filed a lawsuit in New York federal court against Boundless, alleging copyright infringement.

Boundless declined to comment on the specifics of the suit, except to say it is working with its lawyers on a response. “It’s unfortunate that these organizations chose to use litigation as their first attempt at communication with us, and this reflects their misunderstanding of our goals, vision, and business,” the company says. “Facts, ideas, and other not newly created material are not protected by copyright and cannot be owned by anyone.”

Presumably the publishers are taking issue with Boundless’s curation of free online materials (text, images, and the like) to create interactive texts that are, according to the publishers, similar to their own textbooks in some way.

Boundless co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz says his company’s overall goal is “to make learning more efficient.” He adds, “We’re focusing on students,” who want more modular, interactive, and social ways of digesting information. “The future of educational content is not a textbook. It’s not even going to look like an e-book,” he says.

The company’s beta trials, which started last fall, have focused on educational materials in biology, psychology, and economics. Boundless says thousands of students have participated from more than 1,000 universities including NYU, Michigan State, Florida State, and Nebraska. The feedback from students has been pretty positive—which is not too surprising since they are saving money on textbooks. The eventual goal, Diaz says, is for professors to be able to “tweak and tune” the materials available for their classes.

Boundless seeks to disrupt a textbook publishing industry that it sees as anti-competitive, anti-innovation, and exploitative of students. The startup says the cost of educational books and supplies has grown at three times the rate of inflation over the past 30 years—exceeded only by the costs of tobacco and smoking products, healthcare services, and tuition.

In any case, getting sued by big companies is a major pain for a young startup. Even if Boundless wins or the case gets thrown out, the company will lose time and money better spent on other things. Nevertheless, it is keeping its chin up.

“Boston is on the verge of a breakthrough consumer-oriented company,” says Boundless co-founder Brian Balfour. “We want to be one of those leaders in the local community.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Regardless of the outcome of the law suit, Boundless clearly “gets it” — my reaction to Boundless and the suit is at:

    https://plus.google.com/114528586908817727732/posts/d5WoNCxMrjH

  • Colleen

    I’m a college student and I’m rooting for Boundless. Textbooks are absurdly expensive for what you get versus what most college students can afford.

    It’s bad enough to be broke; now you’re broke and coughing up thousands of dollars per year for a few textbooks that haven’t been proofread properly. It’s so frustrating to work on a difficult math problem and redo it over and over again because you keep getting the same answer, which the back of the book says is wrong, until finally you bring it to your prof who discovers it’s a mistake in the text. Why are we buying math textbooks from people who can’t do math, and what is the point of an unreliable answer key?!

    To add insult to injury, you can’t even save a little from the full price by getting a used book, because they’ve shuffled around the page order and used different numbers in the questions, which makes it a “new edition”. Any homework you’re assigned will be different between versions. For the same reason, you often can’t sell your textbook back to the bookstore at the end of the year. After 5 months of use, your pile of $300 books is nearly worthless. One time I got back $8; sometimes they refuse to buy them back at all, regardless of condition. This isn’t the bookstore’s fault, of course. The books just really are worthless at the end of the year.

    This is a total scam, and it’s a pretty nasty one to pull on a group that’s notorious for being poor and broke. I’ve pirated almost all my books since second year, because it means I’m only eating ramen twice instead of three times a day. The textbook bigwigs can go fall in a big hole and break their necks, for all I care.