I was all ready to write an angry blog post about Pearson’s attempt to patent the Generation, Management, and Tracking of Digital Credentials when it came to my attention that they have closed their DRM-Free ebook store, and will now proceed to delete all ebooks from their customers’ accounts. After posting the biggest loss in their history earlier this year, I think (hope?) Pearson’s days are numbered. They’re certainly acting like it.
If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. (Bill Gates)
Instead of getting angry, however, let’s just take look at that patent for a moment. While I’m no legal expert, I’ve seen naive ‘SEO optimised’ pages repeat key words fewer times than this document repeats the words ‘digital credentials’. It almost looks like Pearson are trying too hard here to prove that they invented something they’ve only ever tried make money from.
Here’s the highlights for those people whose lives are too short to read legal documents:
- Filing date: 25th March 2016
- Claim 1 is for a ‘digital credential issuance system’ made up of:
- Digital credential template owner device
- Digital credential issuer device
- Digital credential platform server
- Claims 2-10 go into further detail about Claim 1.
- Claim 11 is for a ‘method of authorizing issuers of digital credentials’ which includes receiving, storing, and transmitting a digital credential template.
- Claims 12-20 go into further detail about Claim 11.
The ‘background’ section uses language very similar to the Open Badges for Lifelong Learning working paper published in 2012 by Mozilla. It talks about changes in technologies and society, how credentials should be available for any kind of learning, but that there are challenges around “publishing, verifying, and tracking the sets of technical skills and proficiencies that these individuals have obtained”.
Although Pearson’s patent application features the phrase ‘digital credentials’ in its title, the ‘background’ section mentions ‘digital badges’ are explicitly:
[C]ertain institutions may issue digital credentials (or digital badges) to qualifying individuals, and these digital credential earners may use the digital credentials to certify the skills or qualifications that the earner obtained vis-à-vis the institution.
As anyone who has paid any attention to Open Badges since the original pilot in 2011 would know, Pearson didn’t invent digital credentials, digital badges, or anything remotely innovative in the area — in 2016, or at any point after or before that. Their game is targeting and enclosing particular markets, as I pointed out in February 2016, in a post which pre-dated this patent application.
Unlike the Salesforce patent granted earlier this year (see Open Badges community discussion), Pearson’s patent is a lot more wide-ranging. While Salesforce’s patent focuses about ‘achievements’ and requires a system that involves specific roles, recommendations, and a social network, Pearson’s is about digital credential platforms. It even includes analytics.
Now, I can understand why a struggling publicly-traded company would try to go all-out to find a way to return to profitability. That does not, however, mean that we as a community should stand for it.
The good patent gives the world something it did not truly have before, whereas the bad patent has the effect of trying to take away from the world something which it effectively already had. (Giles Sutherland Rich)
I used to be mildly amused that Pearson played in a sandpit so obviously at odds with their raison d’être. Perhaps I should have been more cynical, as they obviously are. I note, for example, that Pearson waited until Mozilla handed over stewardship of Open Badges to IMS Global Learning Consortium (who have said they will not contest the patent) before filing.
If you’re reading this and are worried about the future of Open Badges, then don’t be. Pearson have shot themselves in the foot in several ways during this process that means that either they won’t be granted this patent, or will find it almost impossible to enforce. I’m not going to enumerate all of those ways here, but they perhaps should be a bit more careful about joining W3C working groups before filing patent applications…
I’m closing comments on this post as I’d prefer people added their voice to this thread on the Open Badges Google Group. Please get involved, particularly if you know of a viable way that this can be challenged and shown up for the ridiculous posturing it is.
Image CC BY-SA opensource.com
Update: It looks like Pearson have relented and now allowed their badges to be exported out the Acclaim system. Great news!
Open Badges is a web-native credentialing system. It was incubated by Mozilla and I served on the founding badges team. Since then, stewardship of the project has been given to a spin-out non-profit called the Badge Alliance. I’m currently consulting on areas including Open Badges, meaning that, all told, I’ve been involved in the community for nearly five years.
You can find out more about Open Badges and how they differ from other digital credentials via the OB101 course.
There are some big players in the Open Badges space. One of them is Pearson, which you may find surprising. After all, why would an organisation best known for its rapacious business practices (and who some see as standing for everything currently wrong in education) get into the open credentials game?
The answer, of course, is to commodify it. They’ve taken a leaf from Microsoft’s old playbook: Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish. Pearson even have a page on their site explaining how they’re using different terminology just to spread FUD.
Pearson’s badging platform is called Acclaim. They have some big-name partners such as IBM and Citrix. Today, I noticed via the #openbadges hashtag on Twitter that they were singing the praises of the Open Badges ecosystem while pimping their own platform.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Acclaim is technically compatible with the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). However, it’s entirely pointless that the badges they issue are Open Badges as users cannot export them from the system elsewhere. Given that Open Badges are portable digital credentials this kind of misses the point.
It’s true that Pearson have engaged with the community on this issue, but their justification seems spurious:
Real-time verification is essential for the clients we work with who are invested in building trust networks with their badge earners and other issuers. We fully expect the market to mature such that services like Mozilla will address this, but until then, we are not offering export / integration.
This is exactly the kind of response you would have found Microsoft giving 15 years ago when attempting to embrace, extend, and extinguish open document formats.
Growing sick of seeing Pearson’s disingenuous tweeting on the #openbadges hashtag, I challenged them today:
They held the line:
Note that they don’t care about the spirit of the community or the ethos behind Open Badges, just the cold, hard code. As far as they’re concerned, they’re technically compatible with the OBI, therefore they’re part of the Open Badges community. This logic doesn’t wash with me.
I’m calling for Pearson to get their act together and allow badges issued via their Acclaim platform to be portable. Credly have the exact same business model as Acclaim, yet their ‘credit’ can be exported to the Mozilla backpack and elsewhere.
If Pearson aren’t willing to allow their badges to be portable, then they should have the guts to stop pretending that they’re interested in the success and sustainability of Open Badges. Muddying the waters doesn’t help anyone except Pearson’s profits.
Parody of Acclaim website thanks to the wonderful X-Ray Goggles
Yesterday, on the Open Badges community call, we discussed briefly the ‘openness’ of Open Badges. To my mind there’s a dangerous conflation happening at the moment around ‘open’ and ‘free’. I want to take a moment to parse those two concepts. Bear with me.
The most common definition of ‘free’ is ‘free of charge’. In my experience, many (if not most) ‘open’ things are free in this sense. That’s not because things that are open have to be free of charge, it’s just that often the philosophical position taken by the person creating the thing that’s open often leads them to also making it free of charge.
Let’s take Pearson’s OpenClass as an example. They describe the product as being ‘open to everyone, easy to use, and completely free’. The phrase ‘completely free’ here actually means ‘free of charge at the point of entry’. Cost is actually not one of the four essential freedoms, as set by the Free Software Foundation:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
I’m fairly sure that Pearson doesn’t mean ‘free’ in any of these senses. So it’s merely ‘free of charge of charge at the point of entry’. Caveat emptor.
Moving on to what we mean by ‘open’ it’s more of a philosophy, an approach to the world than anything else. So when Pearson say that OpenClass is open because it is ‘open to the world’ that’s a bit of a misnomer. That’s like saying their business is ‘open’ because they don’t turn away customers. They’re conflating ‘open’ with ‘free of charge at the point of entry’.
On the Community call yesterday, Erin Knight very helpfully pointed out the various ways that Open Badges (and the badge backpacks) are indeed ‘open’:
- Open as in free (anyone can create an account)
- Users completely own their data
- Anyone can push badges into it
- Federation/open source infrastructure
- Everything being planned publicly, working in the open!
We do, of course, welcome Pearson as a user of the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) and I was only really using them as an example. What we do need to be careful about going forward, however, is to be precise in our terminology and not to commodify (unintentionally or otherwise) words signifying important concepts.
It benefits everyone in the end. 🙂
Image CC BY-NC tanakawho