A patent infringement fight is on as Blackboard won a very broad patent on e-learning technology including “core technology relating to certain systems and methods involved in offering online education, including course management systems and enterprise e-Learning systems.” The company then immediately sued competitor Desire2Learn, a learning management system developer.
“As one of the pioneers of online education, we launched our first customer’s eLearning program in January 1997, before Blackboard even existed,” said Oakleigh Thorne, chairman and CEO of eCollege. “In fact, we had online programs for numerous institutions up and running [for] more than a year before the filing of Blackboard’s patent application. After consulting with patent counsel, we believe the patent is invalid,” he added.
Patents for Blackboard were issued in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore and are pending in the European Union, China, Japan, Canada, India, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Brazil.
"The fact that one company has been granted a patent for such a broad application and now is engaging in litigation with another e-learning provider is unfortunate for a market that traditionally has been fueled by innovation and choice, Thorne said. "It also is unfortunate that Blackboard chose not to issue a press release when the patent was awarded this past January, at a time when the Department of Justice was investigating the antitrust ramifications of Blackboard’s merger with its competitor, WebCT.” said Thorne.
In addition, another player, the Sakai Foundation has retained open source attorney Eben Moglen and his Software Freedom Law Center to fight the patent. In a press release, the foundation said:
"The recent announcement by Blackboard that it is attempting to assert patent rights over simple and longstanding online technologies as applied to the area of course management systems and e-learning technologies, and its subsequent litigation against a smaller commercial competitor constitutes a threat to the effective and open development of software for higher education and the values underlying such open activities."
Online learning blogger Michael Feldstein has been commenting on this issue regularly since it broke.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has apparently granted Blackboard a patent for...well...pretty much anything remotely related to learning management systems. As I read it, Blackboard basically owns the patent on any sort of groupware at all that is used for teaching purposes. This could have very serious consequences for both proprietary and Open Source competitors – and I define ‘competitors’ as loosely as possible.