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Three publishers sue free-textbook company

Boston start-up denies its business is built on copyright infringement

Boundless Learning offers texts for free and aims to make money by selling supplemental materials to students. But it’s accused of stealing copyrighted content from a variety of sources.

Boundless Learning offers texts for free and aims to make money by selling supplemental materials to students. But it’s accused of stealing copyrighted content from a variety of sources.

Boundless Learning Inc. says it will liberate college students from big textbook bills with free online versions built from public Web content.

But the Boston start-up is being accused of copyright infringement by three of the largest educational publishers in the world, who say it creates its texts by stealing from well-known textbooks. Boundless is “a business built on brazen infringement’’ that “misleads students, and has a corrosive effect on learning,’’ according to a lawsuit filed last month in US District Court in New York.

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“We deny the allegation, and we are going to defend our company’s mission strongly,’’ said Ariel Diaz, chief executive of year-old Boundless Learning, which has raised $9.7 million in funding. “Copyright should not be used to protect antiquated business models.’’

Diaz said Boundless Learning will offer its texts for free and make money by selling supplemental materials. It uses content from sources such as the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia and Open Educational Resources, a database of free educational materials, to create its replacement textbooks.

“What we are doing is curating this existing open-education content and aligning that to the student’s class,’’ he said.

But the three publishers - Pearson Education Inc., a British company with major operations in Boston; Cengage Learning Inc., of Independence, Ky.; and Macmillan Higher Education, of New York City - accuse Boundless Learning of copying the layout, organization, and design of their textbooks. The specific words, which are swapped out and replaced by blurbs from freely available texts, are what is different, the lawsuit said.

None of the publishers responded to requests for comment, and Matthew Oppenheim, a Washington, D.C., copyright lawyer who filed the suit, declined to elaborate on the case.

The suit claims that Boundless Learning, for example, so closely mimics a best-selling Macmillan textbook called “Psychology’’ that in a section on sleep disorders, which “could be illustrated in myriad ways, and using any of a number of disorders,’’ the original textbook and the Boundless version cite sleep apnea and illustrate it with an image of composer Johannes Brahms. “The copying and paraphrasing in [the Boundless version] is undeniable and pervasive,’’ the lawsuit said.

Boundless Learning would not comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit, but its website promises students that its products are “tailored to each of your courses so you can ditch the expensive textbook.’’

The lawsuit comes as traditional textbook publishers are working to adapt to the digital world and the changes that the Web is bringing to education, said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge.

“There are so many examples out there about how free products can send industries into a tailspin overnight, and that’s what the publishers are worried about,’’ she said.

“They have no choice but to see it as an enemy.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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