Free software group attacks educational software patent

The U.S. Patent Office says it will review a patent for e-learning software from Blackboard Inc., which is facing a challenge from an open source advocate.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is going to review the patent held by e-learning software maker Blackboard, in the wake of a challenge by a group advocating open source software.

The USPTO responded Thursday to a November 2005 request from the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) for the review on behalf of three open source educational software projects. In granting the review, the Patent Office found that prior art cited in SFLC's request raises "a substantial new question of patentability" regarding all 44 claims of Blackboard's patent.

The patent in question, "Internet-based education support system and methods" (U.S. 6988138), grants Blackboard a monopoly until the year 2022 on most educational software that differentiates between the roles of teacher and student. In July, Blackboard filed a lawsuit against Desire2Learn, a competing educational software maker, alleging infringement of its e-learning patent.

Although Desire2Learn's software is not open source, the request for patent review was made on behalf of open source e-learning software products named Sakai, Moodle and ATutor.

SFLC, a provider of pro-bono legal services to protect and advance free and open source software, was founded in 2005 by Eben Moglen, a professor of law at Columbia University Law School, and funded by Open Source Development Labs (OSDL).

Blackboard is confident its patent will be upheld as valid in the review.

About 95 percent of requests for patent reviews are granted by the Patent Office, said Matthew Small, senior vice president and general counsel of Blackboard, but of those that are reviewed, only about 10 percent are revoked.

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