Blackboard and the US Patent Office, Part 2

So I’ve had some time to calm myself down a bit, and to look at the full text of Blackboard’s patent, and I have to say, this could be worse than I had previously imagined.

In the patent, Blackboard claims as its own invention:

A course-based system for providing to an educational community of users access to a plurality of online courses, comprising: a) a plurality of user computers, with each user computer being associated with a user of the system and with each user being capable of having predefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system, […] and b) a server computer in communication with each of the user computers over a network […].

Wow, just…wow. This particular claim (and all the details I snipped out for the sake of sanity) can describe every other CMS/LMS I can think of – including Moodle, Drupal, and Sakai. And that’s just the first in a list of 44 claims which cover practically everything, from the structures of the login process, synchronous and asynchronous communication, announcements, course documents, dropboxes, quiz and exam creation, collation and distribution of grades, to the methods one uses to interact with those resources. I was expecting to see “the method further comprising the step of the student user right-clicking on a hyperlink to open it in a new window” on the list. You think I’m kidding? I present to you claim number 32:

The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the course documents hyperlink provides a web page comprising a listing of documents associated with the course.

Think about that for just a minute. Blackboard has patented clicking on a link and getting a page with a list of documents.

I repeat my original statement.

I don’t particularly care if Martin Dougiamas “do[es]n’t actually think anything will happen, because all enforcement will do is make Blackboard look like the bad guys.” Bb could start a very public, long and costly legal battle, and they might even win, but they have much more subtle options to reduce/eliminate the competition. Even the suggestion of patent infrigement could keep already skittish IT administrators from considering alternatives, whether proprietary or open source. This isn’t about principle; it’s about market share. And it won’t matter what Blackboard looks like if they’re the only game in town.

Let’s learn from past mistakes; being “totally not worried” about DOPA got us where? Oh, right, it passed the House by a vote of 410 to 15. So, get worried. Tell your friends. Talk to your system administrators. Blog about it. Podcast about it. Use your voice, or risk losing it.

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

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  1. Henry · August 1, 2006 Reply

    Unfortunately the only way to actually _do_ something about this problem is costly and time consuming: hire a lawyer to fight WebCT’s patents. Until that happens, no amount of propaganda will change anything at all.

  2. barbara · August 1, 2006 Reply

    Actually both of you may be right… there is a lot to be said for drumming up support and making people aware of the issue via non traditional forms of sommunication such as this on right here. After seeing what i saw at BlogHer, it is pretty hard to ignore the power of blogs when people need to be motivated and called to action: there were MANY stories of people who used blogs to provide relief to the area hit by the tsunami and by Katrina… the social networks are there and we should use them. But yes, there will have to be a legal effort as well… but hopefully the bloggers and those that see this plan as foolish can influence the lawyers to fight for this cause.

    My two cents

    –Barbara

  3. Ryan · August 1, 2006 Reply

    I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe that the public exchange of ideas / raising of voices can make a difference. That is why I blog. Idealist? Maybe. But, imho, believing I can’t make a difference is a great way to ensure I don’t.

  4. dave cormier · August 1, 2006 Reply

    Martin’s post about ‘not being a bad guy’ panned out to be wrong before the end of the day on which he posted that. The D2L patent infringement filing sorted that out. I couldn’t agree with you guys more… all concerned parties need to band together on this. We had a long conversation on Sunday night about how Ed-TV got swallowed up by commercialism in the early 50’s and i can’t help but think that the internet is on the edge of that right now.

    Overstated… maybe. but maybe not. would love to have you guys come out Sunday night.

  5. Ryan · August 1, 2006 Reply

    Thanks for the tip, Dave – I didn’t know they’d already filed a complaint. Interesting that they chose a Canadian company to kick things off. Anyway, here’s a link (thanks to Harold Jarche) to a copy of the complaint, in .pdf format.

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