An article by Dan Carnevalle (subscription required) appearing in today's Chronicle of Higher Education discusses a request presented to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Software Freedom Law Center to re-examine Blackboard's patent (U.S. 6988138) for Internet-based education support systems and methods. A press release also appears on the Center's web site.
The patent grants Blackboard a monopoly on most educational software that differentiates between the roles of teacher and student until the year 2022. The Center provided examples of "prior art," a patent law term that refers to similar technology created earlier by a different party and that could be used as evidence to undermine a patent. In this case, the evidence consists of similar software that existed before Blackboard filed for its patent in 1999.
Blackboard's patent contains 44 claims, two of which are independent (#1 and #36). Each claim in a patent is either an independent or dependent claim. Independent claims stand alone while dependent claims are used to narrow the scope of the independent claims. A product that does not infringe on the independent claims by definition does not infringe on the dependent claims. If Independent claims are not infringed then the patent is not infringed. The independent claims are:
1. 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 b) a server computer in communication with each of the user computers over a network, the server computer comprising: means for storing a plurality of data files associated with a course, means for assigning a level of access to and control of each data file based on a user of the system's predetermined role in a course; means for determining whether access to a data file associated with the course is authorized; means for allowing access to and control of the data file associated with the course if authorization is granted based on the access level of the user of the system. "
36. An method for providing online education method for a community of users in a network based system comprising the steps of: a. establishing that each user is capable of having redefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system and each role providing a level of access to and control of a plurality of course files; b. establishing a course to be offered online, comprising i. generating a set of course files for use with teaching a course; ii. transferring the course files to a server computer for storage; and iii. allowing access to and control of the course files according to the established roles for the users according to step (a); c. providing a predetermined level of access and control over the network to the course files to users with an established role as a student user enrolled in the course; and d. providing a predetermined level of access and control over the network to the course files to users with an established role other than a student user enrolled in the course.
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