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Sunday, 20 August 2006 14:20

Patent on Blackboard's technology upsets e-learning firms

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ImageMeeting his e-tutor face to face for the first time when he visited India during summer holidays was the height of excitement for 10-year-old Farhan. He goes to school in New York and was being taught online by this Bangalore-based math teacher for the past 18 months.

This is not a stray episode. Many students like Farhan have become so dependent on online learning that this has become a big time business in India. Although no hard data exists about the size of this market in India, industry experts estimate it at $100-150 million with leading e-learning companies like LearningMate, Tata Interactive, NIIT, BrainVisa, ExcelSoft and Hurix Systems offering online education services for overseas customers.

But, with the recent granting of a patent to US-based Blackboard, (an e-learning market leader whose product is predominantly used in US universities for online education), the online education market is jittery.

Online education covers mainly three categories --converting text books into soft copies; developing technologies for delivering content through the Internet; and teachers tutoring students remotely through the Net.

About two weeks ago, Blackboard was issued a US patent for technology used for Internet-based education support systems and methods. The patent covers core technology relating to certain systems and methods involved in offering online education, including course management systems and enterprise e-learning systems.

In addition, patents corresponding with the US patent have been issued in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and are pending in the European Union, China, Japan, Canada, India, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, Hong Kong and Brazil.

Even before the ink had dried on the patent grant, Blackboard sued Canadian company Desire2Learn, its main competitor in the market that caters to American students.

According to industry experts, the granting of this patent is like patenting ERP as your own technology. “How can you patent something as generic as an e-learning technology?” they ask.

Says Samudra Sen, founder and CEO, LearningMate.com, Mumbai-based e-learning company which has developed intellectual property in the areas of content-development and standards-based learning technologies and services only US and EU client, “No doubt that Blackboard is a market leader but getting a monopoly in this space is something that companies and the markets have to watch out for. The patent is certainly going to be an irritant."

Patent lawyers say Indian companies enrolling US-based students for their e-learning programs would need to watch out because if there is any infringement of Blackboard's patent it could run into legal trouble with suits running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

‘Today, we are seeing an increasing trend by companies who are adopting the Alexander approach -- I come, I see and I conquer – and filing patents for anything under the sun – whether it would be commercial or relevant to them. Companies like this which patent a platform will be creating a “scare-all” kind of a situation that would affect the growth curve in this industry,” explains Pavan Duggal, Supreme Court advocate who specializes in cyber law.

But many Indian companies feel the patent can cover only specific systems and there are many ways to deliver e-learning without infringing on Blackboard's patents.

Ramesh B, who heads Eduquity, a Bangalore-based online assessment company, feels that whatever patents come up in learning management systems (LMS) , people can always work around them. “Especially in the e-learning domain there are so many processes and so many modules -- people can always fashion what they want to suit there needs,” he adds.

But it has definitely put a spoke in the wheel of e-learning companies, especially smaller online education firms and e-tutors. Most likely to be impacted would be those students like Farhan who have become so used to online tutoring and the smaller one-teacher firms which would be worried about infringing on Blackboard’s copyright technology.

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