- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007


Blackboard Inc. announced yesterday what it calls a legally binding promise that it won’t pursue patent lawsuits against users of open-source online classroom technology.

An open-source group said it welcomed the move but noted a key caveat: It covers 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, the D.C. company, which has about 60 percent of the market for so-called “e-learning” systems, 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 idea of online learning.

Many universities mix and match e-learning software, both proprietary and open source, to develop their own systems. Blackboard’s patent, they argued, went against the spirit of academic cooperation and would stifle innovation. Some said they feared lawsuits.

Blackboard denied that it would sue academic users but will make 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 thinks are infringing its patents. The company’s lawsuit continues against rival Desire2Learn of Waterloo, Ontario.

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 still thinks the patent should never have been issued.

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