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.