(via Jordan Hatcher) Blackboard, the maker of educational software applications, has managed to patent e-learning. At first I thought that this was an exaggeration, nobody could claim such a broad patent as to cover e-learning, right? Behold U.S. Patent 6,988,138, which protects “Internet-based education support system and methods”. The title is worrying enough, until you read the abstract:

“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.”

Has the patenting system come down to this? This is so broad that I cannot imagine any sort of situation in which an e-learning programme could not find itself infringing. This covers methods, virtual learning environments (VLEs), discussion forums, delivering classes via webcast or podcast, and just about everything else. To make matters worse, the patent has also been awarded in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, and Blackboard has applied for a European patent (which I hope will be sent back to the fiery chasm from whence it came).

Unfortunately, Blackboard are suing competitors Desire2Learn, which also manufactures educational software. I had a look at their products, and they would seem quite straightforward. VLE software, educational repository, and chatroom applications. Unfortunately, given the broad nature of Blackboard’s patent, it seems to be clearly infringing the patent claim as drafted. I wonder if Blackboard will be tempted to sue Big Blue; after all, IBM produces software like Lotus Virtual Classroom, and Lotus Learning Management System, which are clearly infringing the patent. However, IBM has such a large number of software patents that it I believe it would prove to be a costly enterprise.

On the lighter side, there is a great parody of the patent in CogDogBlog, where we learn that Socrates already patented education methods at an earlier date. I wonder if I can obtain a patent for using PowerPoint in class. Given the sorry state of the USPTO, I think that I might just get it.


Alfred Essa · August 10, 2006 at 9:48 am

I don't think Blackboard will go after the big guns like IBM. They will try to extract their pound of flesh from smaller players such as Desire2Learn and thereby create a spectre of litigation. As a result, new customers will hesitate to adopt software from the competition or use open source.

Andres Guadamuz · August 10, 2006 at 10:51 am

I thoroughly agree Alfred. I meant to say that IBM has become almost entirely immune to software patent litigation because of its patent arsenal. Their portfolio is such that any litigation against IBM software will produce retaliation, potentially via counter-litigation, or by terminating licensing agreements. I believe that the only thing keeping open source software relatively free of litigation in the United States is that IBM is seen as its patron. Any action against OSS companies could produce IBM retaliation. It’s a bit like MAD and the cold war when you think about it.

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