Software Patents Invade Online Classroom


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The very idea of patenting an idea rather than an actual invention stinks beyond description, but that's exactly what the folks at the U.S. Patent Office allow. To them, the idea need only be non-obvious, which seems to mean they've never heard of it described before in a patent.

Now the folks at Blackboard Inc have been awarded a patent on e-learning software used by millions to access college courses from home. CNN has coverage here.

The same day the patent was awarded, Blackboard sued rival Desire2Learn for patent infringement.

"It just wouldn't be a level playing field if someone could come onto the scene tomorrow, copy everything that Blackboard and WebCT have done and call it their own," said Blackboard general counsel Matthew Small.

They claim to be seeking a level playing field, but in fact they are seeking to tilt the field in their favor. If the patent should stand, they will be in a position to collect royalties on the work of other companies, driving up the price of competitors and potentially driving them out of business.

This is yet another example of how the U.S. Patent Office has become a tool to stiffle innovation instead of fostering it. All patents used to require a working invention and that was what you patented. If someone came along an invented a better version, they could patent theirs and so on. When you grant a patent on an idea, that whole domain of work belongs to the company until their patent expires. If this patent is allowed to stand, the whole realm of e-learning software will move forward only at a pace dictated by Blackboard for atleast 17 years from the date of the patent. That cannot be what the founding fathers intended when they wrote the patents into the Constitution.


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