Blackboard‘s lawsuit against Desire2Learn just went to trial. [link no longer working]

This lawsuit has the potential to bring a lot of LMS vendors to their knees. Blackboard’s patent claims are so broad that just about every LMS product can be considered to be in violation of Blackboard’s patents. [ You can read case files and see Desire2Learn’s opinions at their patent blog. Blackboard’s “Patent Pledge” is located here. ]

In Blackboard’s Patent Pledge, they basically try to give open-sourcers (such as Moodle and Sakai) some comfort. They state they won’t sue open-source projects, which implies they’ll go after any and all commercial ventures. It begins with:

Blackboard hereby commits not to assert any of the U.S. patents listed below, as well as all counterparts of these patents issued in other countries, against the development, use or distribution of Open Source Software or Home-Grown Systems to the extent that such Open Source Software and Home-Grown Systems are not Bundled with proprietary software.

The patent

The abstract of Blackboard’s main patent reads:

A system and methods for implementing education online by providing institutions with the means for allowing the creation of courses to be taken by students online, the courses including assignments, announcements, course materials, chat and whiteboard facilities, and the like, all of which are available to the students over a network such as the Internet. Various levels of functionality are provided through a three-tiered licensing program that suits the needs of the institution offering the program. In addition, an open platform system is provided such that anyone with access to the Internet can create, manage, and offer a course to anyone else with access to the Internet without the need for an affiliation with an institution, thus enabling the virtual classroom to extend worldwide.

This is jaw-dropping BS if you ask me. Could the patent possibly be more broad? Did the patent office seriously think no one else had been working on this concept at the time? This is a (well-publicized) recurring issue with software and technology patents, as the number of patent applications has increased, yet the ability of the patent office to keep up with technology and thoroughly investigate patent claims has stagnated. The patent office should never have granted this patent.

Forget about the patent: what about product quality?

I haven’t used Desire2Learn, but when we were looking for a new LMS at work about a year ago, I got a chance to read up on their LMS. I will freely admit that of the dozen or so LMS solutions I reviewed, Desire2Learn was my personal favorite. I was nothing but impressed. They adhere to standards (Desire2Learn has employees on the SCORM workgroup), and their products seem much better planned and executed than Blackboard’s products. Everything felt ‘cleaner’ to me.

Conversely, I’ve used Blackboard as a student at San Francisco State University, and I can honestly say it kinda sucked. We had nothing but problems in our courses. Our professors went so far as to find other free online resources we could use instead of Blackboard, even though SFSU had already paid for Blackboard. Eventually, SFSU decided they’d had enough with Blackboard and switched many courses over to the open-source Moodle. (I’m not sure if they still have a contract with Blackboard or not.)

Blackboard’s acquisition of WebCT (for $180 million) also made many WebCT users I know nervous… WebCT wasn’t exciting, but at least it had some stability. Blackboard’s acquisition of WebCT made users nervous that WebCT installations would be switched to Blackboard, which (to my knowledge) no one really wanted. Blackboard’s website gave a promise to keep WebCT installations intact [link no longer working], so I’m not sure what came of that.

Regardless, you can’t deny customers have issues with Blackboard’s LMS. Considering the sheer cost of a Blackboard installation and annual maintenance/licensing fees, you’d think they’d make a better product. When considering the unhappiness of many users, one has to wonder how much business Blackboard stands to lose simply because of its lousy product. Consumers have a choice! … or do they?

Blackboard’s Patent Pledge and lawsuit against Desire2Learn illustrate their willingness to stomp out competition. (BTW, we’re not talking chump change here — Blackboard is suing Desire2Learn for $17 million in lost profits.) My question is “who’s next?” SumTotal? Saba? Knowledge Planet?

Good luck, Desire2Learn. Hope you win!

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