Patent Fight Over Online Schooling

Justin Pope, Business Week, Aug 28, 2006
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Business Week has discovered the Blackboard patent fight and in a typically one-sided article attempts to depict the fight as being between Blackboard and "the academic computing community, which is fighting back in techie fashion -- through online petitions and in a sprawling Wikipedia entry that helps make its case." Blackboard is given credit for an invention (though it is characterized as "obvious" and "incremental") although it should not be (even Blackboard's "obvious" and "incremental" developments were discovered prior to its claim). The 'market' is described as entirely occupied by commercial products, which is simply false ("Blackboard has about 60 percent of the market for those systems, followed by eCollege and Desire2Learn with about 20 percent each, according to Eduventures"). And universities are said to be "borrowing from" Moodle and the Sakai project, rather than, as is actually the case, developing them and using them.

As Michael Feldstein notes, ABC News, the Washington Post and USA Today have also run the Business Week article. The article was also reprinted in Wired News, which is disappointing, because they can do better than that.

Alfred Essa also comments on the Business Week article, and is worth quoting at length (because the article is a very good example of bias and propaganda in the commercial media):

"Blackboard continues to repeat its spin that 'We're not trying to put anyone out of business. We're not trying to hinder innovation. We're seeking a reasonable royalty.' If Blackboard is after reasonable royalties, why did the company file a lawsuit against Desire2Learn as its first course of action? If Blackboard is after reasonable royalties, why is the company asking for treble damages against Desire2Learn for wilfull patent infrigement?

"The most laughable quote in the article is Blackboard general counsel Matthew Small's claim that the company supports open source. 'He says the company supports open source, and notes a Blackboard product called Building Blocks allows users to create their own systems off Blackboard's basic platform.' We have some crummy APIs, therefore, we support open source. Gimme a break, dude."

Afred Essa also passes on information about Desire2Learn's request for specific materials: "At this time we are seeking specific user manuals and documentation dated June 1999 or earlier from any of the following vendors: Blackboard, Prometheus, Web Course In A Box, WebCT, VirtualU, Lotus and MadDuck."

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