December 2008

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Buckminster Fuller

Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights attests that access to educational opportunity is a basic human right. Yet while a myriad of publishing technologies flourish around us, the staple of classroom teaching, the textbook, is becoming so expensive as to be increasingly inaccessible. In this article we describe how Flat World Knowledge (FWK) is leveraging principles of openness to bring textbooks back into reach of all students, creating significant social value in a manner that will sustain itself over the long-term.

Declining Access to Curriculum Materials

Basic literacy and numeracy are the foundations of economic self-reliance, meaningful participation in government, and moral and ethical development. In other words, education is a cornerstone of civilized society. Education is, therefore, a critically important area in which to create social value.

Access to education is by no means universal. According to a recent UNESCO report, over 72 million primary school age children are not enrolled in school, and millions more cannot attend regularly. Girls and children from rural or poorer families are the least likely to attend school. Challenges with primary school create further difficulties with secondary and higher education.

For many who are enrolled in school or who attend a university, curriculum and other educational materials are unavailable or of poor quality. This contributes to enrollment and attendance problems.

Textbooks are the backbone of most collections of curriculum materials supporting formal educational experiences. While it may be argued that a sufficient number of physical copies of textbooks are available from publishers, it does not necessarily follow that sufficient student access to textbooks exists. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true: due to problems with textbook prices, access to this staple of the traditional classroom is actually in decline.

Problems with Textbooks

Just how high are textbook prices? The average US student spends about $900 on textbooks each year, with textbook prices currently growing at about four times the rate of inflation. Textbooks account for as much as 72% of overall student spending - including tuition - for students attending two year schools. The higher publishers price their textbooks, the harder students look for alternatives to their high priced offerings. Used book markets flourish, peer-to-peer textbook trading markets spring into existence, and grey markets emerge with lower priced international editions of books making their way back into the US, displacing higher priced US sales.

Why are textbooks so expensive? Because none of the afore-mentioned alternatives provide publishers with revenue, publishers are forced to charge even more for the books they do sell in order to meet market expectations.

Extremely aggressive release cycles for new editions are adopted in order to outdate books in the used, peer-to-peer, and grey market channels, driving new book sales. And the faster publishers release new editions that are more expensive than the last editions, the harder students look for alternatives.

Thus, textbook publishers find themselves in the midst of a vicious downward spiral. Because U.S. student enrollments exceed 17 million with 15% growth projected through 2015, and enrollment growth outside the U.S. is even stronger, one would expect that textbook publishers are benefiting from the rising tide of new customers. Instead, the industry is contracting and showing signs of crisis. Despite annual price increases of nearly 9%, unit sales growth has been negative for four straight years, and revenue growth continues to slow.

Given the critically important role of education, the importance of the textbook in education, and the obviously broken state of textbook publishing, FWK saw an opportunity to leverage principles of openness to create a significant amount of social value in a manner that would be sustainable over the long term.

What is Openness?

Openness refers to the copyright licensing status of a creative work that allows individuals other than the rights holder to access the work and make a variety of uses of the work without the need to secure additional permissions or make payments. In the Open Education License Draft, this author summarizes the four main types of activity enabled by openness:

  1. Reuse: use the work verbatim or exactly as you found it.
  2. Revise: alter or transform the work so that it better meets your needs.
  3. Remix: combine the (verbatim or altered) work with other works to better meet your needs.
  4. Redistribute: share the verbatim work, the revised work, or the remixed work with others.

In practice, openness is about using copyright and contract law to make the sharing of creative works and derivatives of creative works free, easy, and legal. Open licenses are used to extend the permissions provided by copyright and contract law.

When the phrase "open source" was chosen in 1998 to describe a method of developing and distributing software, the phrase was embued with a very specific definition. The current definition describes in detail ten criteria by which a software license will be measured in order to determine whether or not it qualifies as an open source license. Summarizing from the open source definition:

  1. Free redistribution: the license cannot restrict people from giving others copies of the software for free.
  2. Source code: access must be provided to the source code of the software.
  3. Derived works: the license must allow the revising and adapting of the source code.
  4. Integrity of the author's source code: the license may restrict source code from being distributed in modified form only if the license allows the distribution of patch files with the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build time.
  5. No discrimination against persons or groups: the license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.
  6. No discrimination against fields of endeavor: the license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor, like business or the military.
  7. Distribution of license: the rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed.
  8. License must not be specific to a product: the rights attached to the program must not depend on the program's being part of a particular software distribution.
  9. License must not restrict other software: the license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software.
  10. License must be technology-neutral: no provision of the license may be predicated on any specific technology.

When this author chose the phrase "open content" in 1998, he did not provide such a comprehensive definition, but rather extended the ideas of open source software to creative works other than software. The Open Publication License, a license made primarily for printed materials like books, journals, and articles, operated within a framework of three requirements:

  1. Attribution: when material from the open content is reused, the original author must be given credit.
  2. Commercial uses: the licensor can choose whether or not to prohibit the for-profit sale of printed copies of the open content.
  3. Derivative works: the licensor can choose whether or not to prohibit the revision or adaptation of the open content.

The Creative Commons licenses, currently the most popular open licenses for creative works, have adopted and adapted this same three-part framework.

By using open licenses, individuals or organizations can grant a variety of rights--such as reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute--in a creative work to anyone and everyone. Open licenses can include some restrictions, like prohibiting commercial use or the creation of derivative versions of the work, but should do so without discrimination towards any individual, group, or field of endeavor.

Leveraging Openness to Create Value

With the importance of education and textbooks described, and the meaning of openness discussed, we can now explain how FWK leverages openness to solve problems of access to textbooks and education.

FWK is an open textbook company. Open textbooks are textbooks that are available online, for free, to everyone. In the specific case of FWK textbooks, these are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. This means that FWK grants everyone the four rights of open content (reuse, revise, remix, redistribute) for their textbooks. It also requires that those who exercise any of the four rights: i) give credit to the textbook author(s) as the original source; ii) refrain from selling the textbooks or derivatives of the textbooks for profit; and iii) share any revised versions of the textbook they create with the world under the same license terms.

FWK utilizes a textbook development model including a single expert author or small number of expert authors, as well as artistic support, editorial support, and support in the development of supplemental materials. The resulting textbooks are of extremely high quality.

Given the previous discussion about the lack of access to quality educational and curriculum materials, it should be clear that providing the four open content rights to such high quality textbooks creates a great deal of value. Students and anyone else with access to a computer now have access to very high quality online textbooks at no cost. Rather than "how does FWK leverage openness to create value?" the primary question of interest becomes "how does FWK leverage openness to sustainably create value?".

Creating Sustainable Value

FWK provides access to online textbooks at no cost, using an open license that prohibits others from selling printed or derived versions of the textbooks for profit. This license restriction creates an opportunity space in which FWK can sell printed versions and derivative versions of the textbooks in order to sustain the business, publish new books, and create additional value. While at first it may seem counterintuitive that anyone would pay for a printed version of what they can get online for free, imagine trying to read 300 pages on the screen. A number of experiments have already demonstrated very clearly that books whose full text is published digitally sell very well in print. Examples include Lessig's The Future of Ideas, Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, and Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Given the opportunity to choose a format that suits them, many students are willing to pay for other versions of the text even though the full text of the book is available for free online. Some prefer an audio version they can listen to while driving or exercising. Some prefer an inexpensive paperback version while others prefer a hardback, full-color copy of the book they can take with them from college into the workforce for reference. Given a palette of choices and reasonable prices, people will pay for the value provided by these additional formats. It is by providing this additional value through alternate formats that FWK sustains its business.

Alongside opportunities to sell books in printed and other formats, a significant opportunity exists to sell optional study materials that support student learning of the content within the books. These materials are usually shrinkwrapped with traditional textbooks as a way of justifying their exorbitant costs. FWK comes back to the principle of choice - disaggregating these resources and leveraging the capabilities of the Internet to sell and deliver digital supplemental materials individually or in discounted bundles. These materials are a second way to generate the revenue necessary to sustain the business and continue creating value.


Applying principles of openness to the problems of the textbook market has been a tremendous catalyst for the creation of value. Innovative business models akin to those employed by businesses built around open source software provide a sustainable stream of revenue capable of supporting the business over the long term. Relying on openness and innovative business models has given FWK a way to create sustainable value.

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