lardbucket: flat world knowledge


Flat World Knowledge

Filed under: Education, School — Andy @ 10:00 am

Over the past few years, a publishing company called Flat World Knowledge has been publishing a number of textbooks in several subject areas, from history to psychology to math. One of the features they have advertised is their “open” books, meaning in part that their books are available for free online to everyone. Until recently, this was nearly unheard of: students can now legally get their textbooks for free (while paying for extra features if they want them). While I had not heard about their books until recently (likely because they have few math books), this is definitely something I like, at least in the abstract.

Unfortunately, Flat World Knowledge has recently decided that the “open” model will not work for their publishing, because not enough people were buying their books. As much as I would like to argue that such a model should work, I’m sure they have more data than I do, and have undoubtedly done their analysis and decided that such a business model is unsustainable for them at this time. While I hope that they are able to offer their books in an open manner again in the future, they have at this point decided to restrict the way in which their books are available on their website, starting on January 1, 2013. (They have already started implementing this change, as well.)

The good news is that they previously published their books online under a Creative Commons license, a common license which allows redistribution (in particular, the attribution, share-alike, non-commercial license, version 3.0). This means that people have the right to continue to redistribute copies of the books, if they happen to have them.

I am still a bit disappointed: I would have liked Flat World Knowledge to succeed in their open publishing experiment. I would have liked more books to be available, and I would have liked even more companies to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately, it appears as though that area may remain the realm of private or government financing for the moment.

I would like to remark for the inevitable debates to ensue in unseen boardrooms in the future that the Creative Commons license likely allowed Flat World Knowledge to have so many books. In nearly every foreword I had read, the authors extolled the open license of the book as a primary reason for publishing with FWK. Were it not for this license, it is entirely probable that FWK would not be in such a favorable position. The ability of others to share your books should be regarded as the feature so many authors see it as, rather than a liability.


  1. Andy, I just found a chapter from my not-yet-published textbook on your website. One of the reasons I contacted Flat World Knowledge first when I was ready to look for a publisher was their policy of providing free online copies of the textbooks. I was very disappointed when I learned they would no longer provide them.

    I have one problem with the material you have online. The picture with the ThinkStock watermark does not belong to me and is not in the public domain. Would you please remove this picture before we both hear from ThinkStock’s attorneys? If the picture makes it into my textbook, it will be because FlatWorld has a contractual agreement with ThinkStock that gives them permission to use it. The rest of the images are mine or are in the public domain.

    Thank you.
    Carol A. Lowe, Ph.D.

    Comment by Dr. Carol A. Lowe — 1/27/2013 @ 1:31 pm

  2. Hi Andy! I just wanted to thank you for archiving the FWK texts. I’m an OER advocate and OER course developer for Do you mind if I link to your FWK archive? Much thanks for your good work!

    Comment by Ronda Neugebauer — 5/14/2013 @ 12:58 pm

  3. Is it O.K. to reuse specific figures from the textbooks? It would seem that having been released into the common domain, they couldn’t be reclaimed.

    Comment by Steve Edwards — 7/20/2013 @ 5:45 pm

  4. Thank you so much! This is very useful.

    Comment by Jenny Huy — 7/21/2013 @ 1:03 am

  5. Dr. Carol A. Lowe: Sorry for taking so long to get back to you on this. I believe I’ve finally found and replaced all of the ThinkStock watermarked photos in your Survey of British Literature book. In a few cases, the photo that was used was easily replaced with another public domain copy of the source image (such as the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England). In other cases, I had to replace the pictures with an image saying that the image was permanently unavailable. If you find other cases where there is a ThinkStock image, please let me know and I’ll be sure to get it replaced. Thank you for letting me know!

    Ronda Neugebauer: Thanks for the work that you do! You are of course always welcome to link to any part of the archive. (You can also download any of the books, copy it wholesale, or whatever you’d like within the bounds of the CC by-nc-sa license. In particular, though, if you do re-host them, please make sure that you aren’t violating the noncommercial aspect of the license.)

    Steve Edwards: As far as I know, it is fine to reuse any of the figures from the books. They were distributed according to the Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license, which means that you can copy any part of them as long as you credit the original author (if they allow you to do so), don’t use it for commercial purposes, and share your copy under the same terms. I don’t know what your purposes are, but I suspect that as long as you’re not selling the result or making money because of it, you would be fine to copy the figures. In addition, Flat World Knowledge has asked me to not label my redistribution of their books with their name, and I would expect that such a request would also apply to you: that means that you in fact should not credit Flat World Knowledge or the original authors. (While I find their request strange, it is what they have asked, so I’m passing that along.)

    In general, if you would like to reuse any part of these books, and it doesn’t appear as though someone has slipped up in clearing material (such as the ThinkStock watermarks Dr. Lowe pointed out), you are likely fine to use the material as long as you aren’t making money off of them, and your copies are also available under the same license. (Note that if you include the figures in a larger work, generally the larger work does not have to be available under the same license.) However, if you are concerned about the legality in your situation, you should talk to a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer, and my suggestions are based only on my best understanding, and are not legal advice.

    Jenny Huy: Thank you!

    Comment by Andy — 7/28/2013 @ 10:09 pm

  6. Thank you so much for maintaining these valuable open-ed resources!

    Comment by Jessica — 7/31/2013 @ 2:19 am

  7. Hi again, Andy-
    Faculty and students LOVE the 2012 Book Archive UI for the open texts. Are you interested in adding any new texts to your listing? I was sent a pdf of a January 2014 CC BY NC SA Financial Accounting text. Many thanks for your open contributions!

    Comment by Ronda Neugebauer — 1/22/2014 @ 2:02 pm

  8. Jessica: Thank you!

    Rhonda: Thanks for the kind words. I think I’m going to keep the archive you’re referring to as-is, just to keep that collection as one unit (particularly given its name), but I’d be happy to get a copy of the other text you’re referring to. I’ll have to see about setting up a generalized Creative Commons textbook reference page. I know that some places (such as Saylor and the OER Consortium) also have such lists, so they may be interested as well. I’ll contact you via email to inquire about getting a copy. Thanks for thinking of me!

    Comment by Andy — 1/22/2014 @ 4:51 pm

  9. I am writing to inform you that the use of our images in Principles of General Chemistry (v. 1.0) eISBN 978-1-4533-3122-4 and (v.1.0M ) eISBN 978-1-4533-5069-0 is unauthorized and is an infringement of our copyright.
    Fundamental Photographs is a studio and photo library specializing in science illustration. When CHEMISTRY: Principles, Patterns, and Applications 1e by AVERILL and Eldredge was published by Pearson Science, many of the copyrighted photographs were created and licensed to Pearson for use in that edition. When Pearson handed the files to the author, he was informed in writing that licensing for any future use was required for the images and illustrations in the text.
    In 2012 we discovered that our images were being provided unlawfully and without license in a digital and b/w version of the text by Flat World on Creative Commons. There is no legal Creative Commons license for this material. We reached an agreement with Pam Hersperger and she proceeded to remove the title from Creative Commons and license usage from us.
    I now find that this project with our photographs has been “rescued”, apparently without questioning why it had to be removed from Creative Commons. Your knowledge sharing goals are praiseworthy, but our photographs are created by hard-working individuals, oftentimes under demanding and volatile conditions, and they deserve to be properly remunerated. In posting our images without our permission, you invite third parties to continue to post this copyrighted material, without creator consent or reimbursement.
    We appreciate your removing these unlawfully posted images from your site and we look forward to your confirmation of this.
    Kip Peticolas, Partner
    Fundamental Photographs

    Comment by Kip Peticolas — 3/19/2014 @ 10:31 am

  10. Hi Kip,

    Thanks for contacting me. I am certainly aware of the difficulty involved in making high-quality photographs for educational use, and had presumed that, as required by the Creative Commons license, the publisher had either produced the images in their books or otherwise properly renumerated the photographers for their work. From what you say, that doesn’t appear to have always been the case.

    I’m truly sorry that you had this experience, and am committed to making it right. I’d be happy to work with you to remove the images which are not available under Creative Commons. I’ll contact you via the email address you provided to work out the details.

    Thanks again,
    Andy Schmitz

    Comment by Andy — 3/19/2014 @ 8:34 pm

  11. I’m not able to access the textbooks that were previously available. Can you help? Thank you!

    Comment by Sheri — 8/21/2014 @ 2:28 pm

  12. (For reference: the issue with Fundamental Photographs was resolved relatively easily. Their photographs are no longer in the books, because they have concerns about them being relicensed. Nonetheless, Kip was quite pleasant to work with, and I would not hesitate to recommend working with them if you do need chemistry photographs.)

    Sheri: I’ll contact you via email to verify that the issue has been resolved.

    Comment by Andy — 12/5/2014 @ 5:59 pm

  13. Andy,

    I understand that these books from flatworld were licensed under creative commons but that was done under a business model that also provided revenue to the authors of the books.

    New CEOs at flat world went with a different model in 20102 which involves fair-priced, but not free, textbooks.

    As an author of one of the books that you are hosting, I would ask that you do the right thing and remove the books from your site and ask your users to pay the fair price for the texts — this is about $25 per book.

    To keep the books posted is legally permissible but in my morally questionnable — it is unfair to the books’ authors.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Charles Stangor — 2/10/2015 @ 3:05 pm

  14. Charles Stangor: I’m sorry that the current situation isn’t to your liking. I have had a number of authors contact me and thank me for keeping the books freely available, including at least one above on this page.

    I’m not privy to the details of your agreements with Flat World Knowledge, but my guess was that authors received revenue when other forms of their books (or additional resources) were purchased, not when people simply viewed the free versions online. In that case, the copies I’ve hosted online are essentially the same as what had been available before.

    Previously, my copies of the books had been hosted with full links to the original book’s website, and I had encouraged readers to support the authors and publisher by purchasing the book or additional resources. Unfortunately, the publisher contacted me and asked me to remove all attribution, so those links are no longer available. (I would be quite happy to restore these links if I received such a request from the publisher, of course.)

    I can certainly appreciate the fact that the books are available for fair prices, and that this is a significant improvement over the status quo. I have found that a significant portion of the visitors to my copies of books are from other countries (frequently, India) where even arranging to pay the publisher at all might prove quite difficult. (The difficulty is pure speculation, as I’m not in that situation, but it seems plausible.)

    I understand your position and concern over potential lost revenue. On balance, I still think it is better to keep the content available to more people, and I’m sorry that we disagree.

    Thank you for commenting,
    Andy Schmitz

    Comment by Andy — 2/15/2015 @ 1:24 pm

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