A company called Sampo IP, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of patent troll Marathon Patent Group, is suing Blackboard for patent infringement. The patents in question appear to be incredibly broad and have also been asserted against Salesforce as well as high-profile customers of collaboration companies Jive, Hyperoffice, and Rally, including Dell, Starbucks, Hewlett-Packard, Aetna, and about 15 others. I have not read the patents carefully, but they seem to be related to applying push notifications to allow one person in a group to send notifications or requests to other people in the group.
For those of you tempted to Schadenfreude because of sins of Blackboard’s past, that would be a mistake. Patent trolls like Marathon can come after any company and their customers. In this case, the Marathon patents appear to be broad enough to be important for countless educational applications and could be applied against a range of vendors and schools alike. At the moment, there are no reports of suits against education customers, and there are practical reasons why the patent trolls would be somewhat unlikely to file suit against such customers in the future. But there is no legal barrier. We should all be rooting for Blackboard and the other defendants in this case.
Patents are a serious and ongoing threat to education. I had hoped during the Blackboard v. D2L fight that there would have been enough concern and awareness within the community to take some broader action, but that never happened. Unfortunately, there are very few tools to employ against patent trolls but what steps can be taken to minimize edupatent suits in general should be taken. Vendors in the space, who own substantial IP, should be encouraged by their customers to form a protective patent pool, for example. Patent pools are of little value against trolls, but at least it would reduce the likelihood of lawsuits by practicing companies. And since big technology players like Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle do substantial business in this space, perhaps they could be persuaded to contribute broader patents and create a substantial umbrella of protection. It is even possible the patent pool might yield prior art that could be effective in invalidating patents held by trolls. The sector could also unite to give companies like Marathon a PR black eye whenever they come after educational software. There are steps that could be taken, but educational leadership needs to step up to make it happen.
You can find and read the legal complaint here.