Blackboard Patent - The Sky, My Friends, is Falling

Dave Cormier, Aug 08, 2006
Commentary by Stephen Downes

eCollege has dropped the gloves and come out swinging against the Blackboard patent. "As one of the pioneers of online education, we launched our first customer's eLearning program in January 1997, before Blackboard even existed," said Oakleigh Thorne, chairman and CEO of eCollege. "In fact, we had online programs for numerous institutions up and running more than a year before the filing of Blackboard's patent application. After consulting with patent counsel, we believe the patent is invalid."

Alfred Essa writes, and I endorse this: "Both Mr. Chasen (Blackboard CEO) and Mr. Small (Blackboard General Counsel) have stated publically (e.g. Chronicle) that our reading of the patent is incorrect. Please educate us then. Tell us what your patent covers and what it doesn't cover. If we are wrong, we will gladly retract our interpretations and admit the error of our ways."

Follow the money. This age-old advice for pulp detectives serves us well as an examination of Blackboard's ownership unveils a whole new layer to the Blackboard case. "With Federated, Carlyle and Oak Hill all in the Bb shareholders club along with Bill Gates, Microsoft and Pearson, Blackboard might be seen as a bit of a darling. So the question becomes why on two fronts: why Bb, and why the patent and litigation route?"

George Roberts, who did the digging, observes, "Federated is huge, one of the largest fund management firms in the world, but it is still a family business, run by Chris Donahue, son of the founder, John Donahue. The Donahues are among the biggest individual donors to the Republican National Committee and to the Bush family."

Dave Cormier comments in reaction to this, "I firmly stated during our rundown on this on Sunday night that I did not believe that there was any kind of conspiracy between DOPA, Net Neutrality and the Blackboard filing... I am here to say I'm no longer convinced... If I wanted to control everything that was happening on the internet this is exactly what I'd do."

Tim Stahmer links to Cormier's musings and observes that while he is not ready to put on the tin foil hat, it is still the case that "Politicians and big media are so accustomed to being gatekeepers for information that theyâxTMre unsure of how to deal with the wide open nature of the current web. So, they fall back on the only tools they know, legislation and intellectual property restrictions." This is basically what I would say as well.

Cormier also links to Michael Feldstein's thoughts on why it wouldn't matter even if we developed technology that avoids the Blackboard patent. "Once an environment of patent litigation is allowed to take hold, innovation will grind to a halt - regardless of who is the immediate target of litigation." Quite right.

He continues, "The only way to prevent this is to teach companies that patent litigation for educational software--whether the infringement suit has legal merit or not--will not be rewarded in the marketplace. They have to learn that customers will shun them for anti-competitive business practices. Otherwise, we might as well either walk away from the whole field or apply for jobs at Blackboard."

Be sure to read the discussion in Feldstein's comments as he and Cormier debate the lilkihood of 'smart money' following Blackboard, and for Paul Bacsich's suggestion that the industry ought to set up a patent escrow.

Part 2 of the Ed Tech Talk conversation from Suday is available.

Paul Trafford meditates on the value of sharing "in the cybernetic age where busyness and popular culture sap our energies" and introduces us to Sarvodaya.

Barry Dahl wonders what the people listed as 'inventors' in the Blackboard patent actually invented. Good question, given that the list of inventors in the Canadian patent application is quite different from the list in the U.S. application/

Harold Jarche links to the No Education Patents website. Michael Feldstein also links to the No Education POatents wiki.

He has also reached pretty much the same conclusion I have in all of this. "Using property laws for ideas only serves the lawyers and the existing power structure. It does not advance individual freedoms nor the public good. Now I am certain that intellectual property laws must be changed if we are to advance as a knowledge society. We cannot have corporate interests defining the direction of our society by patenting ideas that belong to all of us."

Finally, Alan Levine writes about a patent Blackboard may have missed. "July 26, 440 BCÃffffÃfff,Ã,¢x"Socrates Inc. (NASDAQ:SOCRA), a leading provider of philosophical ideas and services to the education industry, announced that it has been issued a U.S. patent for the method of learning used for all education support systems and methods everywhere."
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