Software Patent of the Week: Distance Learning and the Kitchen Sink

by on November 30, 2006 · 6 comments

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.

In college (from 1999 to 2003) I was a systems administrator for the University of Minnesota’s computer science department. Here are some of the software tools that I, or my co-workers, developed or maintained while I was there:

  • Here is GRIT. It stands for “Grade Retrieval for the Institute of Technology.” It allows TAs in the U of MN’s engineering school to upload their students’ grades for secure distribution to IT students. It allows an individual to have different “levels of access” to the grade files depending on whether they were a student (in which case they got read access to their own grade), a TA or professor (in which case they got write access to all grades for a particular class), or an administrator (in which case they had access to everything). This is described in claim 19 of the patent, which claims systems in which “the grade is made available to the student user.”

  • Here is the ITLabs homework submission tool. It allows students to securely submit their homework to their TA. The system automatically logs a timestamp and sends the student a submission receipt. This is what the patent describes as a “digital dropbox.”
  • Here are the ITLabs forums. They allow class instructors to have structured conversations with students in their classes. The instructors have moderation rights that allow them to delete inappropriate posts on the site. The patent says that in the invention described, “conversations are grouped into forums that contain threads and all related replies.”
  • Here are the ITLabs course websites. Each course is automatically provided with space for the website. This is similar to Claim 36 of the patent.

All of these programs have been around since before Blackboard’s patent was filed in 2000. Moreover, I guarantee you that there are hundreds of programs just like them at universities around the country. Most of these programs were created in a matter of weeks in the mid-1990s by one or two of my co-workers.

Now, it might be objected that the programs I list above are not an integrated package, and they don’t provide each and every feature listed in the patent. Which is true. But this is just an instance of the “cup holders AND a spoiler” issue I discussed back in June. (or the Swiss Army Knife issue I discussed last month) It’s just nuts to grant a patent to the first person to “invent” a product that happens to have a particular list of features. If the features of Blackboard’s “invention” are not worthy of patents individually (and they’re plainly not, given that there’s gobs of prior art from just one department in one university), it would be crazy to grant a patent on the concept of combining them.

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