Why is UIUC supporting Blackboard?

An excellent framing of the debate around challenging Blackboard’s patent (local copies of the news announcement, patent re-examination request, and USPTO’s order for re-examination) which stifles educational software.

Date: Wed, 31 Jan 2007 18:27:28 -0600
From: Nathan Owens
To: cio@uiuc.edu
CC: provost@uiuc.edu
Subject: unethical practices by Blackboard

Dear CIO Kaufman,

A copy of this e-mail is being sent to the Provost.

I am writing to express my displeasure with UIUC’s support for Blackboard, the company from which UIUC purchases the software and services that run Illinois Compass.

As you may know, in 2006 Blackboard was granted a patent giving them exclusive rights over certain Internet-based educational support systems and methods. These methods include previously implemented and rather obvious procedures which allow students and teachers to communicate electronically. As such, Blackboard has little or no basis for holding their patent, and it is currently being challenged. Nevertheless, they have recently shown their willingness to defend that patent with a lawsuit against another educational company.

Few would disagree that student-teacher communication, regardless of the medium over which it is conducted, is a fundamental aspect of education. It therefore causes me some displeasure to know that by buying their products and services, UIUC has facilitated Blackboard’s financial capacity to proceed with an aggressive, antisocial, and ultimately destructive lawsuit. I strongly urge that both you and the University rethink your support for a company whose practices are so antithetical to the University’s mission.

Nathan Owens
PhD candidate in French Linguistics

Update 2007-02-05: The University’s CIO replied.

Date: Mon, 05 Feb 2007 10:41:16 -0600
From: Paula Kaufman <ptk@uiuc.edu>
To: Nathan Owens
CC: provost@uiuc.edu
Subject: Re: unethical practices by Blackboard

Dear Mr. Owens:

I appreciate your concerns about Blackboard and its position with regard to its patent protection suits. You may be aware that CITES contracted with WebCT before it merged with Blackboard. It provided the functionality the faculty on campus identified as being important to it; faculty were very involved in the selection process. We’re currently upgrading the version we’re using, but we are already beginning to plan for our next instantiation of a course management system (which will occur in the next 2-3 years). Although we will be obliged to look at the products of all companies that respond to our RFP (again, this won’t happen for 2-3 years), we then will have many more systems to choose from, including open source systems such as Sakai and Moodle, than CITES had available to it when it made the decision to implement a centrally-managed course management system several years ago. Faculty will again be very involved in the selection process; selection of a new system will be dependent on a wide number of factors, including foremost its functionality.

CITES is an active member of Educause, which has been following the developments of Blackboard’s actions to protect its patent See http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/EPO0705.pdf for the latest statement by Educause on Blackboard’s latest actions (in which it pledged not to file suits in some situations). You may also be aware that the Patent Office will be taking another look at Blackboard’s patents; it would appear that there was ‘prior art’ that should have negated Blackboard’s ability to get a patent in the first place. See http://www.softwarefreedom.org/news/20070125a.html

All of this is to say that CITES is not at all pleased with Blackboard’s actions and that although it is not practical or feasible for us to drop using its product immediately, we will be initiating strategic planning to consider our future options. Our decision will be based on a complex set of factors.

Again, thank you for expressing your concerns about the situation. I’ll be glad to talk with you at greater length if it would be helpful.

Paula Kaufman

One would hope that hiring a few programmers to develop a free software WebCT replacement licensed to everyone under the upcoming GNU General Public License version 3 is up for consideration. GPLv3 is taking steps to make explicit a patent grant that would allow people to continue the kind of work developers can’t do now without risking losing a patent infringement lawsuit. Also, WebCT is non-free software—users are not free to inspect, share, or modify the software. This is not a good example for a University to set.