Blackboard Tries Divide and Conquer Approach

Color me unimpressed with Blackboard’s latest move in its ongoing war to kill innovation in the courseware market by patenting obvious CMS features in the education market.

Blackboard is now promising that it won’t go after non-profits and universities who develop their own internal or open sourced courseware. But it is still pursuing actions against its competitors, which will detrimentally affect the courseware market by stifling innovation there.

Fortunately, several groups opposed to the awarding of the overly-broad patents to Blackboard have teamed up with the Software Freedom Law Center to challenge the patents. In November 2006, the UPSTO agreed to re-examine all 44 of the claims of the Blackboard patents in question.

Richard Fontana of the Software Freedom Law Center isn’t buying Blackboard’s latest gambit, noting that Blackboard has confused the issue by suggesting it might still sue open source projects that are bundled with proprietary code.

CNET News.Com’s Stephen Shankland quotes Fontana as saying,

Blackboard could have acted responsibly by making a clear and unqualified commitment not to assert its patents against open-source software. Instead, Blackboard has produced a convoluted document in which, for example, it reserves the right to assert the patent against open source software that is “bundled” with other software, an ill-defined concept that could potentially cover most circumstances in which open e-learning software is used.

Hopefully the USPTO will do the right thing and render this debate moot by invalidating the patents it awarded to Blackboard.


Education software firm OKs open-source patent use. Stephen Shankland, February 1, 2007.

The Blackboard Patent

Probably one of the more absurd recent software patents has to be Blackboard Inc.’s successful application for a patent on “learning management systems,” and its attempts to strongarm competitors by charging them with patent infringement.

Blackboard Inc. owns two “learning management systems” — Blackboard and WebCT. Those are easily the two most popular commercial course management systems, though anyone who has had to use either as a student has to ask why. For the most part, they are stripped down versions of genuine content management systems that force users to jump through hoops right and left to accomplish anything. Their sole advantage seems to be that they scale well on the backend, but open source alternatives are starting to catch up there.

So it makes sense for Blackboard to go the patent route — better to sue your competitors rather than have to compete with them — but its patent again raises the issue of just what the folks at the USPTO are smoking. Just take a quick look at the abstract for the Blackboard patent,

A system and methods for implementing education online by providing institutions with the means for allowing the creation of courses to be taken by students online, the courses including assignments, announcements, course materials, chat and whiteboard facilities, and the like, all of which are available to the students over a network such as the Internet. Various levels of functionality are provided through a three-tiered licensing program that suits the needs of the institution offering the program. In addition, an open platform system is provided such that anyone with access to the Internet can create, manage, and offer a course to anyone else with access to the Internet without the need for an affiliation with an institution, thus enabling the virtual classroom to extend worldwide.

That’s right folks, Blackboard has essentially been granted a patent on applying a CMS to an educational environment. A close reading of the various patent claims reveals there’s not a goddamn single point of originality or innovation here at all.

Blackboard flaks have publicly said that one of the strongest claims they will pursue is on claim 36 of the patent, which essentially describes a system that provides different levels of access to a website based upon a user’s role — a fundamental feature of most content management systems and of computer systems in general.

As Eben Moglen, attorney for the open source Sakai Foundation, put it in a press release,

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.

Blackboard is currently pursing legal action against Desire2Learn and presumably will aim its guns at other competitors sooner or later.