Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More on Blackboard's patents on Internet-based education

I recently posted about Blackboard's patent on Internet-based education.  I've been learning more about this space since I'm evaluating course delivery models for my project with the Rai Foundation here in India.  They've built their own internal system for their 16 campuses, but we still need to figure out if it will fit this radical rural education model that myself and three of my MIT Sloan colleagues are helping them develop.  

It looks like Blackboard had all of the claims (44 of them) of Internet based education rejected in 2008. The India article I had originally cited dated back to 2006. Here's a summary of why the claims were rejected:

The patent in dispute involves a course-management system in which a single user with a single log-on could have multiple roles in multiple classes. For example, someone who was a student in one course and a teaching assistant in another could log on once and get different levels of access to all the course materials.

Desire2Learn and its supporters have argued that the patent should not have been granted because similar technology existed in 1999, when Blackboard applied for the patent.

The patent office awarded the patent in 2006, and within months, Blackboard sued Desire2Learn for infringement. However, the patent office, in its re-examination, cited several examples of "prior art," or previously available technology, that was similar to what Blackboard claimed to have invented.

I did some further reading, and found out that Blackboard agreed not to pursue patent cases against open source software providers.  Strategically, Blackboard has built up a strong position in this industry, and I don't have any doubt that using their lawyers and provisional patents have helped to push around smaller players.  In a services space with little competitive advantage otherwise, I suppose you have to play the game the way the rules are set.  Permitting free open source software to operate to provide a lower end, low cost option for organizations with limited budgets is fair, I suppose. 

Blackboard also describes some of their patent pledges here.  It's hard to blame a company when they're not enforcing against free and open source software options.  While I believe strongly in corporate social responsibility, a company like this also has an obligation to shareholders to compete.

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