Facebook has been busy filing patent applications for years, with the number coming to 35 as of October 26, 2008, when it submitted one for the “resource management of social network applications.” The United States Patent Office also awarded it a patent yesterday, for “dynamically providing a newsfeed about a user of a social network.” But the implications of the awarded patent — and the pending applications — are not clear.
Many commenters are concerned that Facebook is obtaining patents for concepts that it did not invent, and stifling innovation on the web as a result (read more about that on Techmeme). However, before jumping to any conclusions, one must first be aware of the convoluted history of social networking patents.
Friendster already owns or has filed for more than a dozen of them. Four patents it has been awarded include “compatibility scoring of users in a social network,” “how people are connected on a social network,” “the process of friends encouraging each other to upload content,” and “ways for users to manage social-network friendships.” If these concepts sound familiar, it’s because they are quite common to web sites — Friendster did not clearly invent them, despite the decision of the United States Patent Office. Regardless, whatever patents Facebook might obtain, Friendster appears to have a legal edge in terms of social networking intellectual property.
Thing is, Friendster has never tried to enforce these patents against Facebook or any other social network, that we are aware of. One reason may be that the company doesn’t think it has a good shot at winning in court, because the patents are so broad.
Meanwhile, Facebook has been under regular attack over the years from other companies with patents related to social networking. In 2008, for example, it got hit with a lawsuit from Leader Technologies, a company that received a patent in 2002 that “relates to a method and system for the management and storage of electronic information.” Leader Technologies provides web conferencing software, but is not clearly competing directly against Facebook — so the move comes across as trollish. Last July, a judge appeared set to make Facebook reveal its source code as part of the case. From the heavily redacted court papers available on Justia, it appears the judge has since agreed to have the patent re-examined.
The fact that Facebook has been filing patents for years while it has been under attack suggests the company is trying to gain patents defensively, so that more companies don’t patent its innovations and then take it to court. This is basically what others in technology have done for years.
VentureBeat‘s Matt Marshall had a well-informed take on the social networking patent situation, back in 2006, when Friendster was awarded its first patent.
But if you look at the patent details, and consider precedent in this sector, it’s likely the patent will be used as a defensive tool — rather than as a predatory attempt to wring license fees from other companies. It focuses on things like the pathway of relationships, how they are displayed, and the determination of who is in your circle of friends. This isn’t surprising. Friendster applied for the patent three years ago, around the same time LinkedIn chief executive Reid Hoffman bought rights to another key social networking patent.
LinkedIn’s patent (No. 6175831), by contrast, focuses on databases of contacts, how contacts are defined, how you email those contacts, but says nothing about pathways of friendships. Basically, it covers all forms of “relationship confirmation.” At the time, Hoffman made clear his move was ”for protection” against a bigger player that might grab the patent, kill innovation and stain the industry with spam-like tactics that turn users off.
Hoffman’s patent covers a “method and apparatus for constructing a networking database and system.” It’d appear to put Friendster, Facebook and many other sites at risk.
Taking stock of the situation: there are many, very broad social network patents floating around. Some are in the hands of companies like Leader Technologies, who have proven they are willing to go to court to defend what they believe to be valuable intellectual property. Even if that intellectual property appears to be pretty bogus to both the trained and the untrained eye.
Even though Facebook appears to be acting defensively, it has not said this is the plan. If it doesn’t intend to act like a patent troll, it should say so. For now, here’s its canned statement:
The launch of News Feed in 2006 was a pivotal moment in Facebook’s history and changed the way millions of people consumed and discovered information on the site. We’re humbled by the growth and adoption of News Feed over time and pleased with being awarded the patent.
The patent Facebook was awarded for its news feed does appear fairly broad, although not as broad as some commenters have supposed. The abstract from the filing:
A method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment is described. The method includes generating news items regarding activities associated with a user of a social network environment and attaching an informational link associated with at least one of the activities, to at least one of the news items, as well as limiting access to the news items to a predetermined set of viewers and assigning an order to the news items. The method further may further include displaying the news items in the assigned order to at least one viewing user of the predetermined set of viewers and dynamically limiting the number of news items displayed.
Patent attorney and blogger Brett Trout concludes that the patent is limited to a narrowly defined set of features that should leave most companies with some form of “news feed” in the clear. However, he cautions, the patent includes enough ambiguity that other companies should be paying attention.
We’ll continue to cover the real-world ramifications of social networking patents as they become evident.
Here’s a list of Facebook’s 33 other patents, as compiled by SEO by the Sea:
[Illustration by Bob MacNeil via UC Berkeley.]