Why Patent Bully Blackboard.com Became A Creative Commons Advocate

How times change. In 2006, critics feared that one company would use a controversial patent to gain a monopoly over learning software in schools across the land. Fast forward five years: Not only do schools have more software options than ever, but the former bad guy is helping teachers use Creative Commons licenses to share their work.

Blackboard.com, which offers “learning management systems,” became a big deal at a time when many schools were still learning how to put teaching in the cloud. Critics called for a boycott of Blackboard in 2006 after it used a flimsy software patent to sue a rival, and raised fears that it would sue universities that were using their own teaching software tools rather than Blackboard’s products. The controversy abated in 2009, however, when a court found that the patent claims were invalid.

Now, in an intellectual property about-face, the company is no longer brandishing patents but instead helping instructors share their lessons across a free platform. Last week, it announced it would help instructors tag their material with Creative Commons marks, a system of licensing that allows others to use a work without fear of being sued for copyright infringement.

On a practical level, this means that instructors can easily share teaching materials across the world. A marsupial expert in Australia could, for instance, upload her teaching module onto Blackboard’s platform for use by a community college in Kansas. Or an online violin teacher could find new videos to integrate into a cloud-based course.

From a business perspective, Blackboard’s Creative Commons announcement seems to signify a full-on embrace of a freemium model by the education software sector. The company already allows instructors who are not affiliated with a licensed institution to create and host material on its CourseSites platform for free. The new licensing support will make it easier to find and share that material.

So what’s in it for Blackboard, a company that earned nearly $500 million in revenue in 2010 and that was recently bought by a private equity firm? According to spokesperson Anne Duke, the firm makes money by providing paid versions of its software to schools and companies that contain additional features. Blackboard’s decision to make its free version more widely available is likely not only a goodwill gesture but a means of enticing new customers to its paid products.

The decision also comes at a time when Blackboard is facing stiff competition from open source alternatives. More than 350 high schools and colleges, including prominent ones like Columbia and Stanford, are letting teachers and students interact through custom software they have built and adapted themselves. The code for the software is provided by the Sakai Foundation, a non-profit consortium that provides support for new forms of scholarly collaboration.

The current situation in education software — with its fairly healthy balance between open source and proprietary models– is a far cry from the fights of five years ago.