Thursday, August 03, 2006

Blackboard sues for patent infringement

Education systems supplier, Blackboard, having recently been granted a broad patent (no. 6,988,138) in the US on technology used for "internet-based education support systems and methods" didn't let any grass grow under its feet before suing Desire2Learn Inc for allegedly infringing said patent. The patent has also been passed in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and is pending in the EU and various other parts of the world.

Excuse my foaming at the mouth about this but the patent is nonsense on stilts and generically could be interpreted to describe what we have been doing here at the Open University for at least a generation and certainly for the 11 years that I've been here. I suspect Centrinity's FirstClass will be on Blackboard's lawyers' list of targets as well as the open source Moodle system the OU are adopting.

Well, if it takes this kind of patent litigation to wake the education sector (I emphatically reject the notion that universities constitute an "industry") up to the damage that can be done by an imbalance in the intellectual property system then maybe it will serve some useful purpose. The experience could well be painful. Remember Blackboard are the company that sued two technology students, under computer hacking and intellectual property laws, for daring to understand their technology and trying to present a paper on it at a security conference. From Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book, Back to the Future: Digital Decision Making:

"In 2003, two students decided to publish a research paper on an electronic security problem. The two, Billy Hoffman of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Virgil Griffith of the University of Alabama had discovered a security hole in Blackboard’s university ID card system. They decided to publish a paper on the problem at a security conference in Georgia but Blackboard’s lawyers stepped in wielding the DMCA, trademark and computer hacking laws and got a court to issue an injunction preventing the disclosure of the details of the problem.

The students eventually reached an out of court settlement with Blackboard apologising to the company for their actions and agreeing to "refrain from any further unauthorized access to or use of the System," including "any transaction designed to better understand or determine how the System works." "

Jennifer Jenkins of Duke University has a terrific write up of the case at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.

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