Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. This week, I consider Patent #6,988,138, “Internet-based education support system and methods,” issued in January to Blackboard Inc. According to CNet, the Software Freedom Law Center is challenging the patent’s validity. And it’s a good thing somebody is. Here’s what the patent purports to cover:
A course-based system for providing to an educational community of users access to a plurality of online courses, comprising: a) a plurality of user computers, with each user computer being associated with a user of the system and with each user being capable of having predefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system, each role providing a level of access to a plurality of data files associated with a particular course and a level of control over the data files associated with the course with the multiple predetermined user roles comprising at least two user’s predetermined roles selected from the group consisting of a student role in one or more course associated with a student user, an instructor role in one or more courses associated with an instructor user and an administrator role associated with an administrator user…
And it goes on in that vein. In a nutshell, they’re trying to patent the concept of distributing course information (assignments, announcements, class discussions, grades, etc) via the web with different access permissions for different users.
With most of the patents I’ve analyzed in this series, I’ve had to make my best guess about whether someone of ordinary programming skill could have developed the type of software described in the patent. But I don’t have to make any guesses in this case, because I’ve personally worked on software that does most of the things this patent describes.