US patent office declares Blackboard’s e-learning patent invalid
In a recently published decision (PDF file), the US patent office has declared US company Blackboard’s e-learning patent invalid. The patent office rejected all 44 claims in the disputed US patent number 6,988,138, (“Alcorn patent”) for a system for teaching in a virtual classroom using the internet, including chat, a virtual blackboard and provision of teaching materials.
Re-examination of the patent was applied for by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and Canadian Blackboard competitor Desire2Learn in late 2006. It referred to copious evidence that the technology described by Blackboard was already being widely used elsewhere when the patent claim was submitted. The patent office has now broadly accepted the claim for prior art with some modifications.
What remains unclear, however, is how this decision will affect the ongoing legal dispute between Blackboard and Desire2Learn. Jurors in a Texas court in February found Desire2Learn guilty of infringing its competitor’s patent and ordered it to pay 3.1 million US dollars as compensation plus repayment of lost licensing income. Desire2Learn has appealed, but also claims to have modified its software suite to bypass the disputed patent claims. Just over a year ago, Blackboard in turn vowed that it did not plan to use its patent against open source suppliers.
Blackboard can still appeal against the patent office’s decision, noting that in general 90 percent of patents re-examined are ultimately upheld. The company says it is therefore confident that its claims will be declared valid and hopes that the US patent office will concur with the previous court decision, “While the re-examination process moves forward, the issued patent will remain both valid and enforceable.” (Stefan Krempl) /