Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Wikibooks Welcome Open-Source Textbooks to the Web

If ever there were some doubt that the open source movement will have an impact on the publishing industry one need only take a look at Wikibooks, a project spun off by the founder of Wikipedia, the open source online encyclopedia. Using the same technology and post-posting jurying of submitted content as Wikipedia, the Wikibooks project intends to build courseware for K-12 curricula in multiple languages over the next several years. As noted in CNET News there are only about 11,000 articles in the database so far, but it's a strong start to what promises to be a significant alternative for school districts trying to stretch their tax dollars effectively. Wikibooks would in effect become a "generic brand" competing against major text publishing houses, much as inexpensive generic drugs compete against major pharmaceutical companies that churn out slightly different and patentable (read: copyrightable) treatments to boost their margins. The difference in publishing, of course, is that there are only so many ways to learn third grade math that would justify all-new textbooks on any regular basis.

Does this harbinger the death of profits in textbook publishing? Hardly so, yet the roads to profit may involve new angles. Open source textbooks may offer smart textbook printing services an opportunity to provide packaging for Wikibooks content to supply school systems wanting hard copies. Then again, if Answers.com can leverage Wikipedia content in a stable of reference materials, who's to say that Answers.com cannot become clever repackagers of open source and copyrighted course materials that complement their reference product - a product that is already popular in school systems. There's nothing wrong with healthy margins, but it is going to become increasingly hard for textbook publishers to design those margins focused on older content production, packaging and monetization regimes. Yet again, copyright is not going to be a protection for content that's not truly unique or cost-effective.
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