There seems to be a bit of panic going on in the blogsphere concerning Facebook’s recently granted US Patent 7,669,123 for providing news feeds. Some commentators seem to feel that Facebook have “monopolised” news feeds and that Twitter and co could be on the receiving end of a patent suit. It’s true that the filing date of the patent 11 August 2006 is around the time that Twitter started (also in 2006 according to Wikipedia). We can’t actually comment on whether Twitter does or does not infringe the patent, since we haven’t looked at the Twitter product in such detail. However, like much of the debate around patents there are a number of misunderstandings.
The Examiner in the US Patent Office clearly noted that an older AOL patent application US 2007/0174389 also described a method for collecting and distributing information related to recent content publication activity of an instant messaging (IM) user provides other users in a network with timely, relevant information about people known to the user or within the same social network. Facebook had to limit their patent claims (the legal base of the patent) to a method in which a link was provided to enable a user to participate in the same activity as the other user. This certainly isn’t the same as patenting a general news feed. It has to be said that the term seems to be extremely vaguely worded in the patent – and it will be up to a court to decide later what this broad general term actually means.
It’s true that the description is much more general – with a general overview on news fees. However, the description is not relevant to the ultimate protection that can be claimed by the patent applicant – only the claims are relevant.
The interesting thing will be to see how Facebook start using their IP portfolio in the future. Currently they have 33 pending applications published. Their competitors seem to be much less active. LinkedIn has a sole patent application pending in Europe and the United States. German rival Xing AG appear to have no patent applications pending. A more general search on the Questel database showed that there are currently 3079 patent families with the words social and network? in the claims, title or abstract. Facebook clearly only have a small proportion of the relevant IP since some of it is held by companies such as Microsoft (5.7% of all patent families) and Yahoo (4.4% of patent families). However, from the point of view of companies focussed in the social networking field Facebook is the clear leader since no other company comes close to the breadth of their patent portfolio. Not only have Facebook patented the “neat ideas” but their patent applications clearly indicate that a significant amount of thought has been given to patenting revenue-generating solutions, such as advertising. Coupled with their clear innovative tendencies, this suggests that Facebook could go a long way.