The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks

(Note: This material was presented by the author at the CATS (Community of Academic Technology Staff) Conference at Sacramento State University this March, and at the Syllabus 2005 conference in Los Angeles this July. It has also been published on the CETIS (the United Kingdom’s Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards) website. And, in April 2007, the author presented this article to a sub-committee of the US House of Representatives investigating the cost of textbooks.)

The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks

According to a recent survey, University of California students now spend 40 percent more on textbooks than they did six years ago. But colleges and universities may be able to significantly reduce these costs by creating a coalition for the acquisition and distribution of electronic textbooks.

The survey, taken in fall 2003, found that University of California students now spend an average of $898 per year on new and used textbooks, compared to $642 in 1996–97 [1]. By pooling the acquisition of electronic textbooks, and distributing them under a creative commons license [2], we could lighten the load on these students’ already tight budgets.

It should be noted that there are initiatives underway to bring electronic textbooks to market [3, 4], and there are projects intent on improving access to and utilization of existing library resources [5]. Also, a number of well known creative commons initiatives are seeking to supplement, but not replace, textbooks [6, 7].

Yet, though all of these efforts are innovative in their own way, none seek to fundamentally transform the textbook industry.

While the textbook market seems rather tranquil for the time being, the same cannot be said for vendors of Learning Management Systems. One significant proposal that could disrupt the learning software market has been put forward by Ira Fuchs, Vice President for Research at the Mellon Foundation. In a recent article, he proposes the creation of Educore — an organization dedicated to the development of open source educational software. According to Fuchs, Educore

“…might involve more than 1,000 colleges and universities around the world. Each member institution would be asked to contribute between $5,000 and $25,000 per year, based on size….” [8]

Inspired by Fuchs’s vision, this paper explores the idea of establishing a global coalition of similar size that would acquire and distribute high-quality creative commons content that could be used in any of the following combinations: (a) as the basis of an online course, (b) as an electronic textbook, or (c) as a customized printed textbook for use in a traditional college course.

OpenTextbook, as I’ll call it, would also consist of around 1,000 residential colleges and universities, but would accomplish its mission by forming long-term, strategic partnerships with one or more open universities, such as the British Open University (UKOU) [9].

Unlike MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, OpenTextbook would focus on content for the big introductory courses that account for a large percentage of student eyeballs and a substantial portion of the textbook market. According to my own research, around 120 large introductory courses account for around 50 percent of Berkeley’s undergraduate enrollment. For community colleges, this figure may be as low as 25 courses [10].

OpenTextbook’s business model would be simple: traditional colleges and universities would agree to pay membership dues to purchase content from the open universities. OpenTextbook would not develop the content; it would purchase content in bulk. In this sense, OpenTextbook would be similar to consumer cooperatives and buying clubs that pool member resources to gain purchasing power in the market.

In addition to saving money, OpenTextbook’s objective would also be to give faculty the freedom to customize creative commons content, and use it as a substitute for mass-produced commercial textbooks. To the extent faculty choose to do so, the cost savings for students could be substantial.

To see if this would be economically feasible, I’ll start by determining how much UKOU spends on content development. I’ll then look at how much it would cost OpenTextbook members to buy UKOU’s content on an ongoing basis. And finally, I’ll divide a single school’s membership fee by the number of students at the school to see how this cost compares with the current cost of textbooks.

At present, the UKOU spends up to $3 million dollars (U.S.) per course on content development, and they have more than 200 undergraduate courses in their inventory, which comes to a total investment of up to $600 million. They also keep their content updated on a regular basis, which, among other things, means replacing each course from scratch after eight years. In other words, the UKOU currently spends up to $75 million per year on content development, which amounts to around 40 percent of their budget [11].

If OpenTextbook distributed these costs equally to each member, the annual membership fee would be on the order of $75,000. This would be comparable to what Berkeley’s library pays for an annual subscription to one of the more expensive journals. If we assume that students can choose to avoid printing costs by accessing the content online, then for a school the size of Berkeley (23,000 undergraduates) this would come out to an annual per-student cost of $3.25.

In my view, a fair number of faculty who teach Berkeley’s large introductory courses would be willing and able to substitute OpenTextbook content for the commercial textbooks currently in use. But even if most instructors continued to use commercial textbooks, it may still be that enough students would be able to use OpenTextbook’s content to justify the small per-student cost.

Even if we take the most pessimistic scenario (OpenTextbook fails completely and the content goes unused), the $75,000 annual cost of joining the coalition would be rather small — especially when compared with the best case scenario where textbook costs can be reduced to $3.25 per year. In the latter case, the cost savings for a school the size of Berkeley would be extraordinary: $898 less $3.25 times 23,000 undergraduates, or $20,579,250 per year!

In conclusion, it should be noted that what has been presented is not a specific business proposal. Instead, the main purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion of a number of different but interrelated cost-savings issues, each representing a different lever that policy makers could move separately or together. Some schools, for example, may want to provide faculty with financial incentives and resources (e.g., paid staff and student assistants) to customize OpenTextbook content. If these costs were substantial, then policy makers might need to consider a course material fee, which students might accept if it’s less than what they currently pay for comparable commercial textbooks.

Also, any specific policy proposal would need to address licensing issues governing how said customized content would be owned. And, finally, different means of distribution (electronic vs. print) would entail different costs that would have to be addressed. The main point, however, is that a creative commons textbook initiative may not only save students money, it could also give faculty more freedom to customize the content of their courses.


[1] Merriah Fairchild, Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive up the Cost of College Textbooks. CalPirg Education Fund, 2004 ( ).

[2] Creative Commons (

[3] A Strategy and Vision for the Future of Electronic Textbooks in UK Further and Higher Education. Education for Change LTD, 2003 (PDF, Annex_E_E_Textbooks_Strategy_final_report.pdf).

[4] Michael H. Granof, A New Model for Textbook Pricing. Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.

[5] Diane Harley, The Use of Digital Resources in Humanities/Social Sciences Undergraduate Education. Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley, 2004 (

[6] MIT Open Courseware Initiative (

[7] Merlot (

[8] Ira Fuchs, Needed: an ‘Educore’ to Aid Collaboration. Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2004.

[9] British Open University (

[10] Carol A. Twigg, The One Percent Solution. Educom Review, Vol. 30, Number 6, 1995 (

[11] David Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. Harvard University Press, 2003, p185. (Note: earlier versions of this paper reported that the UKOU spent an average of $3 million per course. This is not correct. Kirp actually reports that they spend up to $3 million dollars per course. He does not give a figure for what they spend on average for each course. So, they probably spend less than $75 million dollars per year on course development in total, which means that it would cost less to buy them out.)

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