Canadian Online Learning Company Hit With Patent Suit

A Waterloo, Ontario company spends years developing new technologies that leverage the power of the Internet.  It develops a global following.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, it is hit with a patent infringement suit by a U.S. company, instantly facing the prospect of years of costly litigation in U.S. courts.  With limited resources, it must defend itself by arguing that the patents are invalid.

So begins my weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, BBC International version, homepage version) which does not discuss the RIM-NTP patent suit but rather the recent patent lawsuit launched by Blackboard, a learning management system company, against Desire2Learn, a Canadian competitor.  Both the patent and the lawsuit have generated enormous anger within the academic and open source software communities.

For universities and colleges, learning management systems are an essential part of the education experience as they provide access to group discussion lists, interactive teaching lessons, and collaborative online work spaces that take the learning experience outside the traditional classroom. Many educators have been working on these technologies for years, so the claim that one single company now holds exclusive patent rights on widely known applications that have been implemented into hundreds of learning systems worldwide came as a shock.

The open source software community has also reacted with alarm, since there are several ongoing open-source LMS projects that have gained increasing popularity in recent months.  These projects, which include Moodle and Sakai, are freely available and therefore represent a significant competitive threat to the proprietary LMS vendors such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn. Noting that Desire2Learn was the first legal target, open source developers have wondered aloud whether they might be next.

Interestingly, open source and Internet tools are emerging as the first line of defence against the Blackboard patent and lawsuit.  Angry educators have launched an online petition calling on Blackboard to drop the lawsuit and to agree to forego any future patent suits.

Several online collaborative work spaces known as wikis have also sprung up to pool knowledge about the history of online learning environments.  That information could prove crucial in defending the case, since evidence that the patent is not original (known as prior art) can be used to counter its validity.


  1. Wow, how is it that American companies get these patents so easily, then just as easily launch litigation against Canadian companies… it is enough to make people not want to develop their ideas into products any more.

  2. Do you know if anyone is formally appealing against any of the patents that have been granted?

  3. fair_n_hite_451 says:

    Another fine example of broken patent sy
    This was discussed on Slashdot a few weeks ago, and the general reconstruction done by those in the know there says there is much prior art which could eventually be used to invalidate this particular patent.

    It’s unfortunate that the cost of proving the invalidity of the patent itself will now be borne by those that LMS chooses to sue, rather than the USPTO or LMS (who, by the way did not develop Blackboard themselves, but bought up a company several years ago).

    I have no doubt that all things being equal, this won’t cost D2L a cent … unfortunately, all things are NOT equal.


  4. P.S.
    This is another example of how software patents are used to stifle the free development of new and better software. Blackboard did NOT invent the functionality they have patented and their immediate litigation demonstrates that the patent was not taken out as a means of protecting their IP, but rather as a legal weapon to subdue fair competition and achieve a monopoly.