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Blackboard's work for IMS

Last week, in my (paid) half-time role as Executive Secretary of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), I took part in ALT's teleconference with Matt Small, Blackboard's General Legal Counsel. The notes of the teleconference [110 kB PDF] are on the ALT web site.

Personally I do not think that software or business methods should be patentable, and I am glad that the position in the EU is different from that in the US and several other parts of the world.  (Interesting German article on the Blackboard patent.)  Whilst I can see why businesses feel compelled to take out patents in an environment in which if you do not do it someone else will, and harm you as a result, I am much less happy about the active use of patents against competitors, especially in contexts in which the ideas upon which a patent is based appear to be so widely drawn, with so much input from individual researchers and developers, from companies, and from institutions to whom the patented software is primarily sold.

One aspect of the Blackboard patent which I think is particularly interesting concerns Blackboard's involvement in 1997-1999 in the early stages of the IMS project. Blackboard described its role at that time as IMS's primary technical contractor, as this snippet from a 2000 version of the Blackboard web site indicates:

"Recognizing the remarkable opportunity that a set of emerging industry standards represents, Blackboard is proud to have served as the primary technical contractor to IMS. Specifically, between February 1997 and December 1998, Blackboard acted as both a leader in IMS's standards design work and the primary development team for the creation of example software based on the standards."

Nowadays IMS is entirely focused on the creation of e-learning specifications. But in 1997-1998 it had a specific project to create an e-learning system proper, to demonstrate its specifications in practice. (Slides and text of a May 1998 presentation by Mark Resner "EDUCOM's National Learning Infrastructure Initiative and the Instructional Management Systems Project".) And in 1998 it released the EDUCOM/NLII Instructional Management Systems Specifications Document Version 0.5 (April 29, 1998). (Note. This version has most of its diagrams missing; and interestingly (?) the document contains quite a detailed treatment of roles, something which is central to the two so-called independent claims in the Blackboard patent.)

Did the specification of that prototype system, and the system itself, capture "prior art" which was then included by Blackboard in its patent?

Blackboard's Matthew Small, in the notes of the teleconference with ALT gives an unequivocal no:

"I do not know the specifics of what Blackboard did for IMS in the late 1990s, but the inventions embodied in the patent were derived entirely by Blackboard inventors. The patent and the IMS work had nothing to do with one another."

I think this statement needs to be read in combination with things which Blackboard itself said just over a year before making its provisional patent application, and which I came across today.  In particular, Blackboard issued 3 press releases on 29 April 1998 (the same date as the EDUCOM/NLII Instructional Management Systems Specifications Document Version 0.5). One of these concerned Blackboard's acquisition of investment capital. Here are extracts from the other two.

From Education on the Internet takes Major Step Toward Standards with Release of Educom's IMS Project Specifications:

"The IMS project is part of Educom's National Learning Infrastructure Initiative with staff drawn from California State University's Center for Distributed Learning, from the COLLEGIS Research Institute, and from other member organizations. Blackboard Inc. developed the example implementation under contract in collaboration with other project members. IMS works with the Defense Department's Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative providing technical specifications to support their guidelines for distributed training systems. Additional information on the IMS project can be found at www.imsproject.org."

From Blackboard Announces Development of IMS-based Course Delivery Tools:

"Blackboard Inc. today announced a major internal development effort to launch a full line of software products that will help university faculty deliver courses over the World Wide Web. The products are based on CourseInfo, a leading web-based course management system, and will utilize technologies developed by Blackboard on behalf of a major industry cooperative that includes universities, publishers, technology companies, federal agencies and others."

Of course it is entirely possible that by the time Blackboard came to submit its provisional patent application in 1999 its earlier intention to "utilize technologies developed .... on behalf of a major industry cooperative" had come to nothing, and/or that the patent deals with matters which are unconnected with those technologies. But I do think this issue deserves closer examination.

Let's hope that it can be properly nailed in the meeting + teleconference between Blackboard and IMS that is scheduled for next week.

(An article by ex IMS senior staffer Frank Tansey in the 16/8/2006 Campus Technology is relevant to this piece.)


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