The gents at EdTechTalk ran a terrific Skypecast discussion last night (archived here) on the Blackboard patent and DOPA. I’ll leave it to others to comment on the discussion itself. What I find interesting is the letter that Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen wrote to our hosts in response to their invitation to join the talk. The full letter is on web page for the Skypecast archive, but here’s an excerpt that I find interesting:
Please know that the patent covers only specific features and functionality contained in the Blackboard system that were developed by the Blackboard team. We certainly did not invent e-learning or course management systems, and I am personally embarrassed that this is what some people have stated that Blackboard is claiming.
Over the last decade and longer, fantastic advancements have been made throughout the e-learning industry by a diverse and passionate community of individuals and institutions and Blackboard is privileged to have been a contributor. We hope that such innovations will continue.
First of all, the fact that Mr. Chasen responded at all indicates that he is listening. It’s been less than two weeks since this story broke and we already have the attention of the CEO. I think that speaks well of Blackboard. But also, when Chasen says that he thinks the patent is narrow and confined to Blackboard’s legitimate inventions, I am willing to believe that he is sincere. Sincere, but not correct.
There are two issues. One is an issue of legality. If the patent is narrower than we have read it to be, then I invite Blackboard’s legal team to explain what they think it does actually cover and show us how the language of the patent supports that interpretation. (I believe that Stephen expressed a similar sentiment last night during the Skypecast.) By all means, educate us.
The second issue is one pf pragmatic consumerism. Even if it were the case that Blackboard’s patent represented genuine innovation, it is not at all clear that it would be in the best interests of the customers. Educational software is a very difficult market. Vendors struggle to achieve profitability all the time. Educational patents would allow market leaders to create insurmountable legal barriers to entry for small, innovative start-ups, not to mention Open Source projects. Even if legally legitimate, I believe that Blackboard’s patent will be anti-competitive in its effects–as would be the case with educational software patents in general. And again, if Mr. Chasen wants to make the case to the contrary, then I will certainly listen.
I look forward to our continuing dialog with Blackboard on these issues.