Open Badges and IP: Credly Patents for Generation, Management, and Tracking of Digital Credentials

Credit: Open Badges 2.0 Implementation Guide 
IMS Final Release

Open Badges launched in 2011 as a type of digital credential that could recognize learning, skills, and achievements happening anywhere at any time. They are referred to as “Open” Badges in some respects because of their capability to use evidence to demonstrate achievements that had no other form of recognition such as learning how to code, participating in an afterschool program, demonstrating soft skills, or volunteering at a local community center.

These digital credentials are hosted on web servers and contain metadata that describe the achievements. They can be emailed, shared and uploaded online. Like digital photos which are embedded with date, camera, and location info, Open Badges contain information such as the criteria to earn the badge, who issued it, and who earned it. The data is verifiable because it is digitally traceable back to the issuing party. This information and how it is verified is defined by the Open Badges specification.

The “Open” also referred to it being open source. It implied an ethos of openness and collaboration that drove the community of system designers, technologists, academics & educators who built out the early systems and software. Over the years, this community updated the metadata in the specification, tackled challenging issues, shared our successes, and learned from our failures.

In 2017, the Mozilla Foundation, which shepherded the movement, handed the Open Badges specification to IMS Global Learning Consortium, a private, membership-funded standards organization. This was a result of a shift in funding and leadership of Open Badges between 2014 and 2017. During this shift, Pearson filed two patents called “Generation, management, and tracking of digital credentials”.

It was unclear to the community and IMS whether these patents would be granted. They describe the entire process of Open Badges, and it seemed certain that many years of prior art and previous platforms existed to invalidate Pearson’s claim of invention. Yet, this summer both patents were granted and with Credly’s purchase of Pearson’s Acclaim this past spring, they have now become the assignee.

US10033536B2: https://patents.google.com/patent/US10033536B2/en
WO Application (not granted yet): https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2017165049A1/en

US10068074B2: https://patents.google.com/patent/US10068074B2/en
WO Application (not granted yet): https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2017165047A1/en

Both Pearson and Credly are members of IMS. According to IMS’ Intellectual Property Rights Policy, this should provide legal protection for those who are issuing Open Badges. This text appears to describe the required elements of the specification as being protected:

Royalty-free RAND License: Agree that if the Draft Specification is finally approved by the Consortium, it and each of its Related Parties (collectively for this paragraph, “it”) will provide a license to all Necessary Claims owned by it or which it has the right to license, on a perpetual, non-exclusive and worldwide basis, without compensation and otherwise on a RAND basis, to all Implementers, with such license permitting each Implementer to make, have made, use, reproduce, market, import, offer to sell and sell, and to otherwise distribute products that implement the Required Elements of such Specification;

As Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global wrote, “…Pearson Acclaim pledged a royalty-free RAND license to any essential claims under a pending patent. This means that ALL implementers of the IMS Open Badges v2.0 (OBv2) standard are licensed to any necessary claims under the patent that relate directly to the implementation of the standard.” This should stand with Credly as the assignee as well.

It is not 100% clear to what is meant by “…relate directly to the implementation of the standard” and other questions remain. Many are familiar with Open Badges. Fewer are familiar with the specification and its requirements. Also, patent language is challenging to understand.

The Open Recognition Alliance is hosting a community call tomorrow to review the patents and gather questions in relation to the nuances of the Open Badges specification. Here is the call info:

Date/Time: October 10, 2018, 5pm UTC / 9 am PT / 12 pm ET / 5pm BST / 6pm CET (http://bit.ly/ORA-call-time-converter)

Video & audio access: http://call.openrecognition.org (Zoom Meeting ID: 708 907 6481)

Telephone : +1 646 558 8656 (US Toll) or +1 408 638 0968 (US Toll) International numbers : http://bit.ly/zoomtel

Etherpad: http://bit.ly/ORA2018-October-10

Some initial notes:

  • The patents do contain information about ownership of templates, receiver acceptance, sharing, tracking views, and other technical functionality related to similar content management type of web systems. These functionalities are outside of the specific open badges specification although, without some of it, especially the content and data management aspects, it would be challenging to implement an Open Badges System.
  • The difference between the two seems to be in their claims. One references an issuing system (US10033536B2) and the other a platform of issuers (US10068074B2).
  • The “digital credential” correlates with the assertion which contains required properties mentioned in the patent
  • The patent makes mention of evidence which is an integral aspect of Open Badges but an optional property of the assertion: “…and/or user-specific evidence which may be embedded or provided as links that provides additional supporting documentation (e.g., transcripts, diplomas, scanned assignments or exam documents, certification letters, reference letters, licenses, identification documents, signed certificates of completion, etc.).”
  • The “template” correlates with a badge class, a requirement of the assertion, and aspects of which are required including the name of the badge, a description, and criteria.
  • An issuer is a profile required for all badge classes.
  • A recipient is an identity required by the assertion so that the earner of the badge is known.
  • The patent mentions a “unique URL …. for each digital credential may allow external users to access and view any digital credential earned by any receiver”. This describes how open badges are verified.
  • The patent describes processes for delivering badges, recipient notification and claiming, revoking, and hosting (see above) all of which and many more are indicated in best practices section of the specification

If you are currently issuing Open Badges or considering it or have interest and experience with open source and patent law, please join us to review these patents together.