Kno, Cengage, and Why Digital Textbooks Are Failing

Kno, Cengage, and Why Digital Textbooks Are Failing

Digital textbooks are a bit like alchemy. Everyone wants to find the magic formula, but the experiments just come out as useless lumps, rather than shiny bits of gold. Even iBooks 2 has many skeptics, despite Apple’s deep pockets and impressive publishing contacts. But the best illustration of how tangled and inefficient the eTextbook market is can be seen in the fight between Cengage (a publisher) and Kno (one of the 49,000 services trying to cash in on digital learning).

According to Mashable, both sides have had a disagreement over copying and pasting:

It began, according to a court filing obtained by Mashable, after Cengage Learning raised concerns over features Kno adds when it converts publishers’ textbooks to digital format.

One of those features, Journal, creates a digital notebook for the reader by highlighting passages from the text. These notes are later viewable in a separate view, and according to the filing, the publisher considers this to have “infringed Cengage’s copyrights through the creation of a derivative work.” Cengage gave Kno 30 days to correct what it saw as a copyright problem.

Kno was working on a Journal-free solution, but Cengage terminated the license agreement after 30 days nonetheless. Now Kno is suing Cengage for doing so — while continuing to sell its books on the Kno platform.

“We regret that we had to take legal action against Cengage Learning in order to ensure that our customers continue to have access to Cengage content,” Charles Sipkins, a spokesperson for Kno, said in a statement to Mashable.

Losing Cengage’s content could be disastrous for the startup, which closed a $30 million round of funding last year and has raised a total of $65 million in venture capital.

Frankly, both sides have some issues. Cengage is being draconian in their requests, but Kno isn’t making friends suing a large publisher. Digital textbooks are effectively a problem in search of a solution, and while Kno has hung around for a while, they’re still extremely small fry in the grander scheme of things. And with a bigger, badder competitor (Apple) breathing down their necks immediately, plus the rest of the ebook world still looking for ways to break into the education market (like NOOKstudy), Kno can’t afford to take a big dramatic stand like Amazon did with MacMillan a few years ago. On the other side, Cengage clearly doesn’t want to give digital textbooks much support. Kno’s “journal” feature isn’t any different than a student photocopying important passages for later, or even the highlighting and note-taking options in standard ebook programs. If Cengage doesn’t like Kno, they need to work out who they do like in digital textbooks, because eventually someone with real influence will come along, and Cengage needs to be able to get along with them if they want to remain relevant when digitization finally hits education.

This isn’t the first bit of metaphorical bloodshed over digital textbooks, and it won’t be the last. But it’s clear that both sides are scared and seeking footing in a very uncertain world, and dominance isn’t being decided in the courtroom — it’s decided with consumers. No one has the educational equivalent of the Kindle (yet) and that’s what’s needed. Whether Kno offers their journal feature, or Cengage sells digital textbooks through yet another startup doesn’t matter to the average college student. Focus on building a better ecosystem, and the features will follow.

What’s your take on e-textbooks? Have you tried Kno? Or are you waiting for a more seamless digital textbook solution? Let us know in the comments!


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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?