Facing sharp criticism from academic computing experts, Blackboard Inc.–the market leader in selling learning management system (LMS) applications to schools and universities–on Feb. 1 announced what it calls a legally binding promise that it won’t pursue patent lawsuits against users of open-source online courseware technology.
An open-source group said it welcomed the move but noted a key caveat: Blackboard’s pledge covers a number of named open-source projects, but technically leaves open the possibility that future open-source initiatives that bundle proprietary software could be vulnerable.
The announcement is the latest development in a case that has been closely followed in the information technology and education communities.
A year ago, Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard, which has about 60 percent of the market for so-called “eLearning” systems, or the software used to manage online courses, was awarded a patent that covers some of the basic features of the software used by colleges and universities to run courses over the internet.
The patents prompted an angry backlash from some members of the academic computing community, who called it an attempt to own the very idea of online learning.
Many universities mix and match eLearning software, both proprietary and open source, to develop their own distinctive systems. Blackboard’s patent, they argued, went against the spirit of academic cooperation and would stifle innovation. Some said they even feared lawsuits. (See “Colleges eye LMS patent fight”.)
Blackboard denied it would sue academic users but is now making that commitment more formal, with a worldwide agreement that the company’s chief legal officer, Matthew Small, said could be used in court against the company if it ever pursued such an action.
However, Blackboard isn’t giving up its right to pursue patent infringement lawsuits against proprietary software companies that it believes are infringing its patents. The company’s lawsuit continues against rival Desire2Learn of Waterloo, Ontario.
According to its pledge, Blackboard says it will not “assert U.S. Patent No. 6,988,138 and many other pending patent applications against the development, use, or distribution of open-source software or home-grown course management systems anywhere in the world, to the extent that such systems are not bundled with proprietary software.”
As part of the pledge, Blackboard promises never to pursue patent actions against anyone using such systems, “including professors contributing to open-source projects, open-source initiatives, commercially developed open-source add-on applications to proprietary products, and vendors hosting and supporting open-source applications.” Blackboard said it is extending its pledge to many specifically identified open-source initiatives within the LMS space, “whether or not they might include proprietary elements within their applications, such as Sakai, Moodle, ATutor, Elgg, and Bodington.”
Blackboard’s announcement includes a statement of support from the Sakai Foundation, a leading open-source group that has criticized the patent, and EDUCAUSE, a national group promoting information technology on campus. But Sakai Chairman John Norman, of the University of Cambridge, said his organization remains concerned that bundled code is not included in the pledge and continues to believe the patent should never have been issued.
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