Blackboard, Patents and Monopolies

Some time ago I posted on BlackBoard’s legal crusade. Here’s an update, and the full story.

In August 2006 BlackBoard was “awarded” a US Patent on its e-learning platform and technology, essentially a “Learning Management System”, or “Learning Environment”. According to independent sources (EDUCAUSE, among all), this is a Patent wrongfully awarded, in that it allows for a monopoly of e-learning. EDUCAUSE reacted and wrote a letter to BB, expressing the anger of the e-learning community worldwide. Why? Because shortly after its Patent was conceded, BB sued one of its competitors, Desire2Learn, on the ground of a “need” to defend its own investiments in the field.


The second chapter of this story is from a few days ago, when the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), “filed a formal request with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for re-examination of Blackboard’s e-Learning patent. If successful, the request will ultimately lead to the cancellation of all 44 claims of the patent.” {From Yahoo! Financial News: Patent Office Asked to Review and Revoke Blackboard Patent. The following is also mostly cited from the same articole}.

The same source states that “The patent, “Internet-based education support system and methods” (U.S. 6988138), grants Blackboard a monopoly on most educational software that differentiates between the roles of teacher and student until the year 2022.

[…] The Software Freedom Law Center filed the re-examination request on behalf of Sakai, Moodle and ATutor, three open source educational software programs. “In a free society, there is no room for a monopoly on any part of the educational process,” said Eben Moglen, Executive Director of SFLC and Professor of Law and Legal History at Columbia University.”

“The educational software community has for decades thrived on the open discussion and transmission of ideas,” said Joseph Hardin, Sakai Foundation Board Chairman. “We are deeply concerned that Blackboard’s broad patent will stifle innovation in our community.”

“Blackboard’s patent is patently unjust, as it covers ideas that were widely known and implemented before it was granted,” said Martin Dougiamas, founder of Moodle. “It’s part of a disturbing trend of patents that seek to lock up obvious cultural ideas as the property of individuals.”

Following this developments, a group of volunteers wrote an article on Wikipedia on the History of virtual learning environments, to document the fact that the ideas behind BB’s Patent do not stem from BB alone.

See also the article:

NewsForge | Software Freedom Law Center to challenge Blackboard patent.The patent re-examination request is also available online from the Software Freedom Law Center.

It is worth observing that this battle is taking place at a time when BB already has a de facto monopoly over the e-learning market, after its buyout of former competitor WebCT. WebCT’s old clients now have only one choice, and the price for the upgrade is more that a few pennies. They cannot easily change (as did the UK’s Open University, who switched to Moodle recently), since many previous WebCT or BB clients have hundred of courses in those proprietary platforms and they have already invested lots of money in faculty training.

In Puerto Rico there is a strong trend toward Moodle, after we adopted it at Sagrado Corazón, two years ago. Now, the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamón has done so, and others, big and small, are following.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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