A federal appeals court ruling this week voided part of a Blackboard Inc. patent that competitor Desire2Learn was accused of violating, and technology experts say the end of the protracted legal battle could introduce an era of renewed competition in the eLearning sector.
The case that started in early 2008 when Blackboard accused Desire2Learn of violating a patent on using a single login to access multiple online classes ended July 27 when a federal appeals court agreed with Desire2Learn in its charge that Blackboard’s patent was too broad.
Both companies make learning management systems (LMS) software that helps educators log student grades, conduct web-based class discussions, and distribute class material. Blackboard is the No. 1 LMS company in the market. The ruling did not affect Blackboard’s other patents.
Matt Small, chief business officer for Blackboard, said in a statement that the company was "obviously disappointed" in the ruling, adding that Blackboard could appeal the decision.
John Baker, president and CEO of Ontario-based Desire2Learn, said in a July 28 statement the invalidation of a part of the patent in question would be a boon for educators.
"This decision has affirmed what we believed to be the case all along," Baker said. "It is a true victory for Desire2Learn and all of education."
Some technology experts said Blackboard’s patent was too far-reaching and largely stifled competition in the LMS arena. The court’s decision against Blackboard could clear the way for other LMS companies who might have been reluctant to enter the market for fear of violating the Blackboard patent.
"[Blackboard] looked to use [its patents] to block the competition at pretty much every turn that [it] could," said Mike Masnick, editor of the technology news web site Tech Dirt, which tracked the LMS legal battle. "The patent itself raised a lot of questions … because it could potentially cover any level of distance or eLearning."
The LMS legal fight took contentious turns over the past 18 months, including a motion filed by Blackboard charging that Desire2Learn was in contempt of court after Desire2Learn changed the name of its LMS product. Desire2Learn officials said their latest course-management software, version 8.3, did not violate Blackboard’s patents, adding in statement they would "defend version 8.3 vigorously."
In a July 2008 response to Blackboard’s motion of contempt, Desire2Learn said: "Blackboard bases its motion on nothing more than a series of flip-flops, distractions, and misstatements."
Blackboard officials argued that, despite name changes to Desire2Learn’s LMS products, their functionality had not been altered enough to satisfy requests to avoid patent violations.
Scott Testa, a marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University who tracks education technology trends, said Blackboard’s aggressive approach to developing a reliable product and marketing among colleges and universities of every size has paid dividends. Securing patents, he said, is a key to beating out smaller competitors who market similar products.
"At the end of the day, they have a legal right if they feel their intellectual property is being compromised," Testa said. "That doesn’t make Blackboard bad. … Public companies have the financial muscle to bring in really good lawyers."
Testa said the lengthy fight with Desire2Learn–a smaller company that drew support from many parts of the education community–"didn’t hurt Blackboard one bit."
"You’ll always have big companies that are dominant in the market," he added. "It’s the Darwinism of the marketplace."