- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Internet appears to be turning its assassin’s eye on yet another victim: publishers of textbooks. Various organizations seek to post free textbooks online and update them constantly by people in the field.

The idea is to provide free textbooks online to students in poor countries.

Today, many textbooks are very — many would say absurdly — expensive.

A kid in Phnom Penh or La Paz probably can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars for books.

However, textbooks are copyrighted and publishers can charge what the market — usually meaning U.S. market — will bear.

So, how to get free (or very cheap) texts to students in underdeveloped countries?

An idea that leaps to the digital mind is simply to scan textbooks and put them online illegally, as is done with copyright music. Aside from possible moral objections, schools that used such texts would be fairly easy legal targets. Not practical.

Enter “open source.” The idea here is that people on the Web collaboratively write things — programs, encyclopedias or, now, textbooks — that can be used and modified without charge.

The notion sounds touchy-feely, idealistic and unworkable. Thing is, it isn’t.

For example, years back a fellow named Linus Torvalds wrote Linux, an open-source operating system that, while it hasn’t replaced Windows, is widely used by serious people. (For example by China, which doesn’t want to pay Microsoft’s prices.)

Another example is the Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia written by users. It has been accused of being inaccurate, but it survives. Again, open source.

OK, textbooks. At least a couple of places, GlobalText and Wikibooks, are working on making available large numbers of basic texts, in different languages, free of charge to the entire world.

Details and approaches differ. The three crucial points are, one, the texts can be freely reproduced by almost anyone; two, the texts will be updated constantly by people in the field; and three, a country can modify the text to meet its particular needs.

Can this work? There is no obvious reason why not, as long as additions are edited by someone reasonably literate.

So what does this mean for companies that sell textbooks? Potentially a lot, and all of it bad.

Bear in mind that a lot of commercial textbooks, especially in technical fields, are poorly written yet, usually, pricey.

A free, reproducible, clearly written textbook could compete.

If a textbook were truly in the public domain, any government could print it for very low prices.

I have in front of me a 345-page, all-text (no photos) book from IUniverse.com, one of many print-on-demand companies that will print almost any noncopyright material for anybody. It retails for $18.95, a lot less if you buy it in bulk.

That’s far less than you would pay for a textbook on European history of similar length in a university book store.

Commercially, the Internet remains a monopoly buster. In the case of open source, the busting is perfectly legal.

If open-source textbooks become widely available, the established text publishers will presumably have no recourse but to cut prices hard, and even that might not work, especially in poor countries.



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