i've been reading through all of the coverage and commentary regarding blackboard's being granted a patent for elearning processes and methods. having been amongst the team that drove webct into leadership in the
what's your opinion?
is blackboard evil? or just doing good business? is the patent office to blame? or is it all just part of the capitalist game? check out the instant survey at the top of the left sidebar and voice your opinion.
higher education marketplace, i've never had much of a soft spot for blackboard, nor their business tactics. and their immediate lawsuit against a competitor only hardens my heart towards them.
however, i also do believe in looking at issues from all perspectives. a us corporation has one primary responsibility - to serve the best interests of the companies shareholders. the only caveat to that prime directive is that they must do so while remaining within the bounds of what is legal. as well as I know blackboard, they crossed every "t" and dotted every "i" to make sure their filing with the patent board was legal and above board. cornering a sector of the elearning market with a patent, at least initially, can only be good for the shareholders of blackboard.
every american and every american corporation has the right to file for a patent for something they feel qualifies for protection under the patent laws. so i have a hard time saying blackboard was wrong for filing. there are a myiad of companies out there trying to patent pieces of the internet. (aol granted patent on instant message technology in 2002, balthasar online, inc. granted 180 patents in february 2006 related to rich media on the internet, or landvoyage for mapping technology in july 2006.) it's an easy argument to make that if blackboard didn't grab these patents, a competitor might beat them to the punch and leave their shareholders with a much less valuable company.
as tim o'reilly pointed out in june 2000, the problem isn't with the company's who are filing and winning the patents. while some may feel that these corporations have a moral or ethical duty to leave these supposed assets in the public domain, in a free economy like ours, that's just hogwash. someone is going to claim that patent if it's claimable.
the finger has been pointed at the patent office for a very long time now. why hasn't that agency moved to reform their standards to deal with the issue of granting nebulous patents that are clearly going to restrict competition? why, in lieu of the patent office not acting as congress seen fit to stand by and let this continued land grab of technology go unabated over the past decade? ultimately it is congress' responsibility to assure that free markets are free, not slowly gobbled up by owners of assets that can't be easily defined. and as of a few days ago, orin hatch and patrick lahey have put forward an new proposal to be considered by the senate..
there are a few other potential venues for these patents to be rendered invalid or useless. the first are the courts. historically the courts have tended to rule against patents which were too broad in scope (lotus' suit against microsoft for excel's violating the "touch and feel" of lotus 123 is an example). however the courts were indecisive on the blackberry case last year. leaving their future role in limbo.
the final hope is in the creativity of programmers to out maneuver the patents and render them useless before they can do harm. aol currently doesn't have a monopoly on chat applications due to their patent granted in 2002. this is likely due to new technologies displacing old technologies rendering the patented somewhat harmless. but this puts a tremendous burden on our ability to invent then reinvent faster and faster. let along consumers needing to adopt the new technologies, forking out more money each time.
so as much as i'd be happy to see blackboard take a swift pipe to the knees, i have to say, i don't think their the bad guys this time. what do you think. check out the poll in my left sidebar and we'll see how everyone's opinions roll up!