Teaching Blackboard a Lesson About Patents

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It's not often that the US PTO declares previously issued patents invalid, but that's what it's done in the case of Blackboard:

In a recently published decision (PDF file), the US patent office has declared US company Blackboard’s e-learning patent invalid. The patent office rejected all 44 claims in the disputed US patent number 6,988,138, (“Alcorn patent”) for a system for teaching in a virtual classroom using the internet, including chat, a virtual blackboard and provision of teaching materials.

Re-examination of the patent was applied for by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and Canadian Blackboard competitor Desire2Learn in late 2006. It referred to copious evidence that the technology described by Blackboard was already being widely used elsewhere when the patent claim was submitted. The patent office has now broadly accepted the claim for prior art with some modifications.

That's the good news. Here's the bad news:

Blackboard can still appeal against the patent office’s decision, noting that in general 90 percent of patents re-examined are ultimately upheld. The company says it is therefore confident that its claims will be declared valid and hopes that the US patent office will concur with the previous court decision, “While the re-examination process moves forward, the issued patent will remain both valid and enforceable.”

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? But here's what the patent abstract involves:

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.

In other words, this is essentially the idea of using the Internet for teaching – hardly an original invention. It's clear that morally Blackboard hasn't a leg to stand on, whatever the deranged US patent system might eventually decide.

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