Transcript: Copyright-Friendly Textbooks

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Interview with Scott & Lida Hasbrouck, Gingkotree

For podcast release Monday, October 22, 2012

KENNEALLY: Technology frequently has a way of outpacing copyright. The two forces of innovation all too rarely intersect, at least for many authors and publishers. But a month-old startup with ambitions to revolutionize textbook publishing has made copyright permissions an integral part of its app.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book, and Scott Hasbrouck, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Ginkgotree, joins me now from his corner office in a former brewery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome, Scott.

SCOTT HASBROUCK: Hi. Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me on.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re delighted to have you join us today, and before we get into what Ginkgotree is up to, we want to tell people that part of your background, a former PhD student in physical chemistry. You were also the developer of PaperDesk, one of the top note-taking apps for the iPad. And so, as somebody who is a serial entrepreneur, we look forward to talking to you about Ginkgotree, whose stated purpose, and we should mention, it’s device-agnostic, is to let professors and other instructors build their own online textbooks from videos, images, sound and scanned selections from previously published books and related works. And along the way, of course, you also get permission to reuse all that copyrighted stuff.

So, Scott, where did this idea come from? What were you trying to do when you sat down to develop this?

SCOTT HASBROUCK: Well, the idea came from – it was a hybrid of when I was a TA in a PhD program at the University of Georgia, and when I was also developing PaperDesk. I launched PaperDesk right as I was going into my PhD program a little over two years ago, and being involved as a TA just gave me a glimpse into the process of higher education, and one of the first things I saw that really bothered me was how course materials were handled. I’d obviously been exposed to them quite a bit as an undergraduate, but it was the first time I was on the other side, and using them as an instructor.

And just comparing how antiquated course materials seemed, compared to all of the innovative stuff that was happening out on the iPad in the App Store that I was now heavily involved in, in developing one of the top note-taking apps at night, when I came home from work, that caused me to start really thinking about things about a year ago.

And I realized, as my time as a TA started ending, and I was going to into research full-time, I realized that my passion to teach exceeded my passion for scientific research. So I – my wife and I spent a week on vacation, and we did some soul-searching together, and we came to the conclusion together that I just – I needed to pursue something full-time, and I didn’t quite know what that was going to be yet.

So I actually spent six months talking to as many people as I could in higher ed, which included everything from publishers from Cengage, to smaller publishers like Flat World Knowledge, that were a bit more innovative in how they handle copyrighted materials. And then I spoke to the other end of the spectrum, and I spoke to as many college professors as I could, ones that were prominent in the ed-tech spheres on the Internet.

And what I found was, most of the ed-tech solutions were almost entirely focused on content and students, and very few or none were focused on the instructors. So I realized pretty quickly that even though something like course materials seems like a very flooded market, and that there are already so many solutions out there, because it’s such a large market – I mean, it’s like, what, $8 billion a year, that students spend on course materials every year, combined with the fact that no one’s really been truly innovating very much in what professors want. I saw a huge opportunity for change.

KENNEALLY: Well, what did you hear from professors that they did want?

SCOTT HASBROUCK: OK, yeah. So that’s a really good question. One of the biggest things that I heard, probably the biggest thing that heard, is that I had not talked to a single professor that was 100% happy with any textbook in any subject, independent of what subject, whether it was a hard science or a soft science, or if it was art or humanities. I – everyone from my undergraduate advisor to professors that I just shot an e-mail to and asked for a phone call, none of them were happy with their textbooks. Probably, at best, they were 40% or 50% happy with the content.

And what they really wanted was a way to customize their materials, because they – the fact is, that most college professors have a ton of freedom of how they teach in the classroom, just an enormous amount. They compare – especially compared to K-12. And unfortunately, that’s not true when it comes to finding a textbook for your class.

So some of the more aggressive ones that either – that somehow dug the time out of their schedule to try to put something together themselves would do everything from try to launch a WordPress blog, to use as a course material hub. A lot of them, quite frankly, would just illegally photocopy stuff and hand it out in class. That – I mean, that’s actually a huge issue. I remember that happening when I was an undergraduate, and that’s obviously not good for anyone involved.

So, the biggest thing that I heard was, customization. And it makes sense. If you think about it, what social media and the Internet has done in almost every other realm that it’s touched is, completely customized everything. It’s even happening with physical products now, with 3D printing. We’re a society that’s quickly moving away from mass-produced software and products that is supposed to be one-size-fits-all, to everything is finely tuned. I mean, there’s almost a million apps you can choose from, to do anything you’d want to do. And I quickly see that becoming a solution with course materials, so –

KENNEALLY: Right, right. Well, Scott Hasbrouck, CEO, co-founder of Ginkgotree, I guess the point you just made strikes me as quite fascinating. Professors have tremendous freedom in the classroom, but it’s the textbooks they’re working with that confine them. And so, really, the kind of solution that you’re offering is to give them that very same freedom.

SCOTT HASBROUCK: Yes, absolutely. And in fact, in almost every case, the textbook is the thing, the only thing that restrains them. Almost all professors I spoke with had very little bureaucracy or red tape from their institutions, and it really is – course materials alone were the thing that were holding them back.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, it’s interesting, and what caught my eye about Ginkgotree when I read about it is the incorporation of copyright permissions clearing. You use Copyright Clearance Center. There are a variety of ways to do that, we’re not the only one, but certainly, we’re glad you’re working with us.

But why is that so important to professors? You mentioned that many of them feel guilty about the kind of reuse of materials. They probably feel like they have no choice. Now you’re giving them a choice that lets them incorporate the materials, but also get the permissions that they need.

SCOTT HASBROUCK: Yeah, absolutely. With everybody that I spoke with, if there were an easy option to do what they want to do, and use copyrighted materials on a page by page basis, they would do that in a heartbeat. But the fact is, there’s nothing like that really exists. There are some solutions, but they’re very clunky, and quite frankly, the markup on them is kind of high, and it ends up costing more than a textbook, which almost completely defeats the other purpose of professors wanting to come onto our system, to lower expense to students.

But the reason we found so much value in this is that in asking what professors wanted to use for course materials, it was a mix. It was, you know, a third of my materials, I want to be YouTube videos, or videos from Kahn Academy. Another third, I want to be stuff that I’ve written myself, that I’ve had in these 8 million folders on my computer in Word docs. And then other part of it is, well, I want this huge variety of selections from books on my bookshelf, but how do I get that into a course (inaudible)? Well, I can’t, so I just photocopy them and hand them out in class, and the rest of it is a list of links on blackboard.

So that’s why it’s so entirely important, because open source is amazing, it’s great. I think it’s a really important movement on the Internet. But the fact is, is that there’s still an enormous amount of material out there that has to be copyrighted, that the only way it can be produced is by funding. And the way you do that is by clearing copyrights.

And so, the Copyright Clearance Center API was probably one of the most valuable resources we found in trying to solve this problem, because originally, we were going to have to lock professors down to only using open source content – you know, if we want to do it legally, which we have to. So – you know, in finding the Copyright Clearance Center API, we removed the last sort of restriction on our system, in that they’ll seriously be able to use anything they can find, if it’s a book on their shelf, a video on the Internet, and it all gets combined neatly into one bundle and one resource.

KENNEALLY: And in fact, you will even generate a shipping label for people to send you the books from their shelves, if you will, in their offices, and you do the scanning and get them back. Very briefly, what about the cost issue? How does what Ginkgotree is doing have an impact on lowering the cost for textbooks?

SCOTT HASBROUCK: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, the first thing is, one of the biggest feedbacks we heard is that most textbooks, the professor will only use about 30% or 40% of the material in. So, immediately, if you only require the students to purchase the exact pages that they’re going to read, that’s a huge cut in price. And also, if you look at the per page prices in the Copyright Clearance Center’s library, they’re typically about $0.10, $0.15 a page. Most professors were talking to want to use maybe 100, 200 pages, so $20 or $30 in copyrighted materials is drastically less, it’s about 20% or 30% of the cost of the $200 textbook.

And then the great thing is, we’re able to make a profit on this by just charging the students a small monthly fee to access our system. So it ensures that we’re going to survive, because the fact is, is we’re a bootstrap startup, so to be around here and continue making great products, we have to have a profit pretty quickly, and this model allows us to do that. And at the same time, if the students are paying anywhere from $30 to $50 for their course materials, that’s about a quarter, more or less, than the typical $200 brand new textbook from the bookstore.

And then the other way it helps is, if they can replace some of the copyrighted materials with open source and public domain things that are free, it even further reduces the costs.

And then the last bit of this is, our goal is to get students on our system. It doesn’t really matter to us that if they’re taking one or 40 classes – I mean, no one takes that many classes, but it doesn’t matter if they’re taking an entire course load on our system. The expense to us is about the same. So we’re just passing that along to the students. We’re not going to charge them any extra if they have three or four professors using Ginkgotree, and it’s still just $10 a month to access the system.

So, that’s how we’re lowering costs, and in pretty much every case that we’ve spoken with our early adopting professors, that’s what we’re hearing is, yes, this is going to be much less expensive for students.

KENNEALLY: Well, let’s turn now to Lida Hasbrouck, who works with Scott in that office there in the old brewery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lida, welcome to Beyond the Book.

LIDA HASBROUCK: Hi. Thanks, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Well, Lida, you handle the marketing and public relations for this now month-old startup, Ginkgotree, and already generated a lot of buzz online, and you’ve got some customers to tell us about, and in particular, curious about their reaction not only to the points that Scott was just making regarding lowering cost, but also, the incorporation of Copyright Clearance. How are things going so far, and what have you been hearing?

LIDA HASBROUCK: A lot of really great feedback. The professors and librarians and everyone who’s been looking at Ginkgotree have really loved the direction that we’re headed. They’ve been very specifically pointing out that the Copyright Clearance has been a huge hurdle to tackle for them.

One of the head of library department had talked to me about just the influx of materials that come in from professors, and trying to get through all that, and how she knows that many professors just completely ignore the system that they have set up within their specific college, and copy – just freely copy materials for their students. And it’s a huge frustration, a huge legal problem, and most professors are just attempting to skirt that. And she sees this as an excellent way for that to be stopped.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. And I guess the other thing that’s so important, I’m sure, to professors, is what Scott was also mentioning, which is the freedom that an app like Ginkgotree offers people. What’s been the response there? The ability to incorporate material from all media must really be something that gets a lot of professors jazzed up.

LIDA HASBROUCK: Yeah. Yeah, they’ve been using other services, some of them, at least, where they’re limited to only the content that that service has available. And those private libraries for the services are just too small. They have to transition off the content they’ve already used, or they’ve been using, possibly for years or decades teaching, you know, in one set of books.

And that’s really hard for professors. As it is, they already have to keep their course content up to date, and to ask them to just transition off everything that they’ve been using is not a good option for them, or for their students, because getting re-acclimated to new material really creates kind of this divide with, you know, do I have everything I need, where is – what is going to be applicable to this section that I was teaching before. And this just lets them expand upon the material in any way that they want.

So they’re probably not already using a lot of videos, or as many as they’d like. Same with audio guides or whatever, they’re not incorporating those much into their lectures. So now they can, and they can just build on the material they’re already using.

KENNEALLY: Well, turning back to Scott Hasbrouck, CEO, co-founder of Ginkgotree, one last question, Scott. There you are, sitting in that old brewery in Ann Arbor, Michigan, certainly a college town. But how does it feel to be part of this revolution in digital publishing? I mean, you and your wife can sit there over a single desk, and really take on some really big players. That must be kind of a daunting feeling to have.

SCOTT HASBROUCK: It seems daunting, but honestly, it’s kind of amazing how much impact we’ve already had. To be completely transparent, we only spent three months building the product we have now. And you know, the invitations we’ve received to events, and to speak at, and the feedback we’ve received, it’s mind-boggling how a team of just four people can do something that such a large corporation can’t. And it’s exciting, and it feels very empowering. It’s something that I feel like hasn’t happened in American society in a very, very long time, that innovation in new spaces has been limited to corporations with millions and millions of dollars with huge teams, and that – the tech startup revolution is definitely changing that.

And just in watching what’s happened with other ed-tech startups – not even just ed-tech startups, but startups in general, in most of the cases, the big players can’t keep up with the agility and speed of a small startup like us. I don’t entirely understand why that is. I have a lot of hypotheses on it, but it doesn’t really matter to me, because the fact is, is that’s the way it is, and I have every confidence, especially now that we’ve started with the feedback we’ve gotten and the number of people that have told us they want to use our system, with just the small bit of press that we’ve received, I have every bit of confidence that we’re going to be here, and we’re going to make a huge dent.

KENNEALLY: Well, Scott Hasbrouck, co-founder and CEO of Ginkgotree there in Ann Arbor, Michigan, thank you so much for joining us today.

SCOTT HASBROUCK: Thank you. Thanks for having us on.

KENNEALLY: And Lida Hasbrouck, thank you so much for joining us today.

LIDA HASBROUCK: Thanks, Chris, for having me.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as now images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, Copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.