Thursday, August 31, 2006

Report on copyright barriers to education

The Berkman Center have published a new Foundational White Paper on The Digital Learning Challenge: Obstacles to Educational Uses of Copyrighted Material in the Digital Age. Well worth a read. Those folks in the open learning community who have have recently picked up on the possible hurdles the law might create in our domain, as a result of the Blackboard litigation, might find the report particularly interesting. If you only have time for one of the case studies I'd recmomend the one focussing on DRM technology.

Blackboard say they will not sue universities

The Association for Learning Technology folks have had a teleconference with Blackboard about the concerns raised by their patent litigation. Blackboard's General Legal Counsel told the ALT that the key independent claims in the patent are numbers 1 and 36:

"Each of the other 44 claims (that is, the dependent claims) are dependent upon claims 1 and/or 36 and/or others of the dependent claims. The overall invention described in the patent draws upon a large number of elements, and it is only claims 1 and 36 that Blackboard asserts, through the patent, that it invented as stand alone inventions. The remaining claims relate to features that, as stand alone elements, might have already been invented elsewhere. Blackboard indicated that people who think the patent is a statement by Blackboard that it had itself invented what is described in each of the 44 claims as stand-alone elements are understandably offended. But the fact is that it is only claims 1 and 36 that Blackboard believes it invented as stand-alone inventions, and it is only infringement of these two independent claims that would result in Blackboard being able to obtain redress."

He also said the company has no plans to sue individual universities or undermine open source projects:

"We have a stated business policy of not going after individual universities, nor are we focusing on Open Source initiatives."

Whereas universties including my own can take some comfort from this, stated business policies do tend to change over time. As to the inventions claimed in items 1 and 36, item 1, when translated from the legalese basically says Blackboard have a patent on:

Any system of online courses which can be accessed via different computers by different users. Those people can be students, instructors or system administrators. The courses sit on a computer server and the kind of access a user gets to one or more courses depends on whether they are a student, teacher or administrator.

Item 36 when translated means:

A community of users can use the system. Each user can have various different roles (student, instructor or administrator) and access privileges based on these roles. Courses can be put on a server and users given the requisite degree of access.

I remain unconvinced that either of these central claims meets the "new" or "inventive step" requirements needed to be patentable.

Thanks to Ley for the ALT pointer.