Blackboard – a dangerous friend

Continuing on the Blackboard patent front…

I have to say it strikes me as a commercially dumb move. I’ve had dealings with people at Blackboard and WebCT and always found them to be a smart bunch. They have often pitched the idea that they are partners. The patent is such an antagonistic act however, that any such notion of being a strategic partner must seem dubious. If I worked at an institution that ran one of their products and it was coming up for review, the patent would be a major factor in going elsewhere, for a number of reasons:

  1. It might prevent any additions or innovation I wanted to implement on my campus without finding myself either handing these over, or in court, or having to pay BB to use tools I had invented.
  2. It shows a lack of understanding, or at least a lack of concern, with the values of higher education that make partnering difficult to sustain.
  3. It has a whiff of desperation about it that is never reassuring to detect in a strategic and central supplier.

I remember when I was a teenager, this chap hung around with us who was a bit rough, and had been in trouble. He seemed a reformed character though and we liked having him around. However, one Saturday night after a few drinks a situation escalated and he ended up being carted off by the police. The patent kind of reminds me of this – when the going gets tough they revert to the behaviour they know best – aggression.

At a recent IMS discussion Blackboard did stress that they would not go after open source products, and I doubt they would be successful if they did. Indeed the patent is unlikely to be successful in Europe where software patents are generally frowned upon (copyright is considered a good enough protection I understand), and maybe in the US too. The issue of prior exposure would seem on any logical grounds to rule out most of the patent, since these are such general ideas that most of us could find examples of prior exposure. However, I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of patents is not great, although I do know a thing or two about VLEs, and any suggestion that Blackboard invented the concept is ridiculous. The trouble is lawyers and software don’t make a good mix, so anything might happen. My point, regardless of whether it is actually successful or not, its presence is enough to raise mistrust. If you were part of a project on standards or interoperability, you would be very unlikely to have Blackboard as a partner.

One Comment

  • Tamsin Kilner O'Byrne

    Hi Martin,
    Ironically, I found your site while searching for varied definitions of e-learning. Just thought I’d say how helpful I found your book on e-learning (the title of which escapes me at present); it is at least partly responsible for my recent appointment as an ed tech at the University of Exeter. So, thanks!

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