Blackboard Loses on Appeal

On July 27, 2009, a federal appeals court invalidated Blackboard Inc.’s 1999 patent for its learning management software, overturning a lower court’s decision last year finding that the Blackboard competitor Desire2Learn had infringed the giant’s intellectual property.

Monday’s ruling by the appeals court is the latest development in a several-year court battle initiated by Blackboard in July 2006. The behemoth accused Desire2Learn of infringing dozens of Blackboard patents for online course management and e-learning technologies, and sought $17 million in damages and an injunction barring the Canadian company from continuing to infringe the patent.

After a two-week trial in Lufkin, Texas, a jury in a district court seen as friendly to patent holders ruled that Desire2Learn’s learning platform used technologies for which Blackboard received U.S. patents, known collectively as the ” ‘138 patent,” in January 2006. But its verdict gave the company far less than it was asking for, awarding Blackboard $2.5 million for lost profits and $630,000 in royalties. The district court invalidated 35 of the 38 claims that Blackboard made against Desire2Learn, but backed three other claims related to what constitutes a “user” of a learning management system.

Both companies appealed the parts of the case they’d lost to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has nationwide jurisdiction over U.S. patent claims. Its highly technical decision upheld the lower court’s conclusion that Blackboard’s claims 1-35 were invalid. But the three-judge panel rejected the lower court’s finding that Blackboard’s patented learning system had originated the approach of giving a single user with a single log-in multiple roles, such as being a teacher in one course and a student in another.

But Blackboard has already initiated another lawsuit against Desire2Learn, accusing the Canadian firm in April of infringing new U.S. patents that the company received on its software. So while company officials continue to reassure higher education technology officials and others that Blackboard has no intention of asserting its patent rights against “open source or home-grown course management systems that are not bundled with proprietary software,” they show no signs of retreating in the wake of Monday’s stinging defeat.

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