Open Source Textbook Websites Are Wonderful Options But Have Legal Traps

April 2010Alerts Education Alert

There are a number of non-profit 501(c)(3) entities that have sponsored open source textbook websites that provide either free or open source textbooks that enable elementary and secondary schools to put together their own textbooks at no cost subject to the provisions in the open source website. A number of the non-profits have established projects that are scanning millions of books and making them available on-line for educational purposes. Some of the books (especially those out of copyright) are available for free, and a number of the projects enable a school administrator to cherry pick chapters from different allegedly open source textbooks to put together a district-specific textbook without paying the huge cost normally necessary to obtain new textbooks from textbook publishers.

Most of these non-profits are established with a view toward providing schools with open access materials that will enable students who otherwise would not be able to get the advantage of new and updated textbooks to have the advantage of comprehensive materials that become district-specific curriculum methodologies.

The utilization of these services, however, does not come without risk. The websites for many of these non-profits clearly limit the liability of the altruistic non-profit, which technically does not verify the copyright or open source nature of the materials that would be downloaded or put together by a school entity using the software of the website. Independent verification or care must be utilized by the school to determine whether or not the material being downloaded does comply with copyright rules and is truly “open source.” At a minimum, the district should attempt to verify the open source nature of the materials or run the risk of a copyright violation action.

As with all good things, care must be used when open source materials are placed on the web.

If you have any questions about the information contained in this Alert, please contact Jeffrey T. Sultanik or any member of Fox Rothschild’s Education Law Practice.