Blackboard software launches patent suit

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Lately, Blackboard software has created more anxiety than usual. Gone are the days when the greatest concern was whether an assignment made it to the professor, now people are worried about the future of e-learning solutions and innovation altogether.

Blackboard Inc. was recently issued a United States patent for course management systems which provide an easy-to-use and scalable system with multiple user roles in an online learning environment. Using the patent, Blackboard filed a lawsuit against competitor Desire2Learn Inc. for patent infringement in July. In response, D2L filed documents calling the patent invalid and unenforceable.

"We have, from a lot of sources, been provided with a lot of prior art," said D2L marketing director John McLeod.

Blackboard considers the patent legal and enforceable and has filed documents for their position. With the two companies' legal documents filed, the court has set a trial date for Feb. 11, 2008. Both companies declined to comment on specific legal details of the proceedings leading to trial, rather they pointed to the filed legal documents.

"It's in the court's hands to make a decision," said McLeod.

McLeod noted that neither the patent nor the lawsuit would impact D2L's business or development of their technologies. However, the lawsuit has stirred up considerable debate in the e-learning industry and educational community.

Members of the industry have called the patent too broad and the lawsuit a threat to future innovation and development.

"We haven't characterized that it is too broad or too narrow," said McLeod. "The industry at large sees it against them."

Blackboard also maintains that it is not too broad, and that such ideas come from misreading the patent.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," said Blackboard public relations manager Melissa Chotiner.

Chotiner notes that patent law is complex and the nature of the claims narrows the scope of the patent.

"We actually think that protecting our intellectual property will foster innovation," said Chotiner.

Chotiner noted that Blackboard supports third-party innovation and add-ons to integrate with Blackboard software. Their Building Blocks program encourages collaborative development of technology with independent third-party institutions.

Blackboard software has been used at the University of Calgary since 2003. It allows professors to post announcements, notes, grades and other information to students on the Internet.

Both companies noted that concerned parties should carefully review the specifics of both patent and lawsuit.

Both also pointed interested people to their websites for more detailed information.

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