Some of you may know the slashdot website, which is always good for a provocative discussion about patents and their value. Their latest entry identifies a newly granted US Patent 7,739,139 assigned to Amazon and which claims a social networking system. The entry is slightly wrong since it suggests that the application which was filed in 2008 originates from that date, but the continuation data shows that its original pedigree goes back to a 1997 filing issued as US Patent 6,269,369.
The slashdot entry concludes that the well-known Facebook CEO will have to “open a can of patent whup-ass” (whatever that is).
The claims of the patent certainly seem on face value highly relevant to all social networking websites:
1. A computer-implemented method, comprising: receiving and storing personal data of a first user of a computer-based service, said computer-based service accessible to users over a network, said personal data specified by the first user; providing a user interface for users to establish contact relationships with other users of the service such that each user can have one or more contacts, said user interface enabling a user to identify other users of the service, and to selectively initiate the generation of requests to establish contact relationships with the identified users; receiving a request from a second user of the service to establish a contact relationship with the first user, said request submitted to the service over a network via said user interface; sending a notification of the request to the first user over a network; providing an option, in connection with said request, for the first user to grant permission for the second user to view at least some of the personal data of the first user; and in response to the first user granting said permission, providing the second user access to at least some of the personal data of the first user via a contact information user interface of the service, such that the second user is provided access to data that would not otherwise be accessible to the second user via the service; wherein the method, including receiving and storing the personal data, providing the user interface, receiving the request, sending the notification, providing said option, and providing the second user access, is performed by a server computer system.
I haven’t yet had the chance to read the patent in its entirety, but the examination record is frustratingly short. There’s a note of an interview that took place with the Examiner, after which the patent was granted. No major correspondence at all (but you would not want to put too many comments on record, in case they came back to haunt you later).
So what’s Amazon going to do with this patent? Who knows? I think it’s unlikely that they are going to try and shut down Facebook (after all they have a fan page. More likely it’s going to an interesting tool to defend itself against alleged patent infringements and maybe even providing some good old licensing revenue.
And what happens if Bilski comes out? Well, my guess is that the Examiner has already had in mind some idea of what the Supreme Court will say in Bilski. The claim is full of structural features and it’s going to be difficult to dismiss the claim as “a business method as such”. Indeed it certainly passes the US PTO’s “machine or transformation” test. So my guess is that the patent would at least be held valid under whatever test is conducted in the future. The interesting thing is whether anyone can find prior art out there which predates the 1997 filing of the patent application. That will be more difficult.