Patently Dangerous - Friendster and Blackboard

Friendster, the site that was the hot Facebook/MySpace of yesteryear has been granted a patent for its "system, method and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks." Why is this dangerous?

Friendster was a pioneering site for online social networking. But it was supplanted by Facebook and MySpace and they will be replaced by some site that is being coded while you are reading this. That's the way it goes.

But Friendster doesn't want it to go that way. I'm sure they are hoping to garner attention and new users from the buzz that the patent will attract. It's the most buzz they have had of late. They did recently make some improvements to the site, but I understand they also have other patents under consideration. So how long will it be before they decide to sue some competitor for patent infringement?

I'll give them this - their patent was filed in June 2003 and the rapid-response team at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted it June 2006, so they didn't come up with this plan that recently. Patent (7,069,308) is for the use of online computer systems to help people connect and communicate with each other and to see and manage those relationships within social networks. So the college students creating Facebook in their dorm room didn't know that they were already infringing on something.

Closer to many educators' classroom life is the recent patent and subsequent lawsuit by Blackboard Inc. against competitor Desire2Learn. (If I read the reports correctly, the patent was granted and the lawsuit filed on the same day.)

The Patent Office has granted Blackboard Inc. what appears to be a very broad patent on groupware used for teaching that has many educators and observers predicting an end to competition and development in the field. (Read Blackboard's press release on it.)

Call that software a learning management system, courseware or a virtual learning learning environment, but don't think this all came about in the past decade because of distance learning. Versions of this type of software have been around since 1960. Blackboard bought out WebCT a while back. Are they planning to take out the competition one by one? Do they go after open source software like Moodle eventually too?

Is there any hopeful news? I read that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will re-examine the validity of the so-called JPEG patent held by Forgent Networks. ( The Patent Office granted the review at the request of the Public Patent Foundation, which says it is a not-for-profit legal services foundation interested in protecting the public against harm caused by patents.) Forgent is a "intellectual property" company that exists by this multimillion-dollar revenue stream. There are a number of these companies and cases coming up for patents on Blackberry-type technology, streaming video, compression etc.

For educational institutions, I see only fewer choices and higher licensing fees. Personally, I see even more interest in examining open source solutions and homegrown systems.


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