The Internet is arguably the most important cultural development of our times, and right now we are in the midst of a struggle over its fundamental nature. Specifically, the Internet has become so influential due to users’ ability to readily access information free of charge.
This conflict has crossed into the realm of higher education on several occasions, but a new fight is showing its potential to affect the basic conduct of classroom activity. Last January, Blackboard Inc. was granted a U.S. patent for “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.” In other words, Blackboard’s patent is for its popular online course-management system (akin to Oncourse).
Critics have argued that this patent is unduly broad — in effect, awarding Blackboard with the patent not for “any device or even specific software code” but “the idea of putting such tools together in one big, scalable system across a university” (USA Today, Aug. 27). The fear is that Blackboard will wield this patent against competitors and open-source software projects that were developed with the cooperation of the academic community. Those concerns might not be unfounded: In August, Blackboard sued competitor Desire2Learn Inc. for royalties.
According to IU Chief Information Officer and Dean of Information Technology for IU Bloomington Brad Wheeler, IU’s Oncourse is not under threat of lawsuit because it “predated the first Blackboard claim by at least 18 months.” However, IU “has been following the patent matters very closely and is working with the Software Freedom Law Center (www.softwarefreedom.org) to review the merits of this patent.” Meanwhile, for Blackboard’s part, its senior vice president and general counsel Matthew Small has said, “It would make no sense for Blackboard to go after open-source programs like Moodle and Sakai … because they are not commercial providers” (Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 2). The current variation of Oncourse, Oncourse CL, uses Sakai 2.1 software.
Nevertheless, the Blackboard case does highlight the fact that academia has a stake in this debate over who-owns-what on the Internet — and that we must be vigilant to ensure that the outcome preserves its status as an invaluable educational resource.