Bb v. SFLC, Sakai, Moglen, rational thinkers, et all.

Wed Dec 6 15:44:00 2006 EST (-0500 GMT)

Today I attended an excellent panel on the current BlackBoard patent (and indirectly their legal action against Desire 2 Learn) that featured Eben Moglen, General Counsel for the Free Software Foundation, and the Chairman of Software Freedom Law Center and Matthew Small, BlackBoard’s senior legal council. Both parties took questions and talked about Bb’s patent.

This followed the morning keynote by Moglen that was excellent, as he is a great speaker and a great advocate. I recommend the podcast when it comes out. It also follows a motion filled by the Software Freedom Law Center to invalidate Bb’s patent.

Small attempted to clarify that they only hold a patent on multiple educational roles being performed by one person and that they are interested in supporting open source and that he believes Sakai is trying to fight a war that BlackBoard dosen’t think they’re in. Ultimately, Bb (which owns WebCT) has no position on software patents other than they are the law as it exists and Bb will avail themselves of whatever legal system they have to work with.

Moglen flatly denied that the patent was anything close to valid and said that any concern about it was moot as it would soon be gone. He also pointed out that what Small claimed was the focus of their patent, and the part that has no prior art, was “roles may be mixed; for example when an instructor of one course, is also a student in another course” – that line is actually found in brackets inside of The user roles comprise a student role associated with a student user, an instructor role associated with an instructor user, and an administrator role associated with an administrator user (roles may be mixed; for example when an instructor of one course, is also a student in another course). — Hardly the focus of the patent.

In response to a question about exporting, or reverse-engineering, the course archive files Matthew was understandably not able to give a technical response to the question other than to clarify that institutions did own their content when it was inside of Bb. Moglen was able to respond that if anyone were to try to import their content directly out of a Bb course archive and be sued he would be there to defend them, for free, whether retained by Sakai or not. I think Moglen sees that issue as analogous to the FAT file system patent/contention that he fought with Microsoft.

The knowledge and the certainty that Moglen invokes when speaking about this patent, and defending free software is very reassuring and I’m very happy that he is contributing to freedom the way that he is. I also want to give praise to Matthew Small and his team for coming to this conference – The WebCT conference was nowhere near as hostile to Bb as the Sakai one has been.
Excellent image of Matthew Small & Eben Moglen from iandolphin999.

  • Nicola

    I admit I was looking forward to the Lunch because after seeing the morning address, I knew Mr. Moglen would not disappoint (plus I was really hungry by the time lunch rolled around). However, I grew tired of his showboating and ended up being more interested in whether Mr. Small would actually cough up anything resembling a real answer to the education communities real and serious concerns about how they will do their jobs on a day-to-day basis in this environment.

    “In response to a question about exporting, or reverse-engineering, the course archive files Matthew was understandably not able to give a technical response to the question other than to clarify that institutions did own their content when it was inside of Bb.”

    I don’t think it’s understandable or reasonable that he wouldn’t give an answer for this. Our University owns it’s content, but when that content is wrapped up inside a propriety format, are we allowed to extract that content using whatever necessary means? That is a serious and real question, and Mr. Small wouldn’t answer it. If he feels it’s outside his technical expertise, then he needs to find out the answer and get back to the community, not give us lawyer-ly platitudes. The real answer, of course, is that Bb will not commit to an answer because they don’t want to alienate the community and yet would still like to reserve their right to sue someone.

  • Hi Nicola,

    Please stop me in the halls if you see me!

    I wanted to defend Matthew’s inability to address file import issue because I empathize that I wouldn’t want to describe patent law in front of 700 people and I assume its a similar situation for him as a lawyer. He commented that he felt he was probably the only in the room who didn’t know enough about it to comment.

    Eben has an easy answer for all Bb patent issues, as he’s simply against it and need not worry about the details of the question. Matthew has a problem of his own making, but it is a larger more nuanced one. Rest assured, I’m in Eben’s camp!

    I encourage you to read my next post I made after the BOF with Bb.

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