Facebook’s News Feed Patent

by Rob Harrison on 1 March 2010

There seems to be a bit of panic going on in the blogsphere concerning Facebook’sfacebook-logo.jpg 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-logo.jpg LinkedIn has a sole patent application pending in Europe and the United States. German rival Xing AG 200px-Xing_logo.svg.pngappear 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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Watson 03.01.10 at 10:06 pm

Rob. A good post and clearly explained. As you say, there is often a lot of gossip that surrounds patents in particular in the chatrooms. You’ve explained well that although Facebook has a granted patent that at first glance may appear to be wide, it effect it is not as wide as it might seem to the uninitiated.

A commerically interesting question though? Could we really see a day when one social networking brand aware giant would use patents to try to stop the activity of another social networking brand aware giant? Is that really part of the IP strategy at Facebook? Would it have the desired effect of stopping the users of that competing service from carrying on its service…or would it just backfire as the users of the alegedly infringing service slaughtered the aggresor for mis-using the IP system. Imagine that damage in your Relationship Capital. Particuarly when nearly everyone I know has a Facebook AND a Twitter account.

Or is this really just Facebook’s IP counsel being sensible and trying to protect the core of what makes Facebook special to justify the probably very high R&D budget. eBay did get caught by MercExchange in the consumer internet IP skirmishes (one troll always get lucky in each new market), but could I see ever so popular Facebook dragging Twitter into a patent battle?

Hmmmm..one to think over. I just can’t see it.

Andres 03.17.10 at 7:14 am

I’ve read the claims, and I’m still not wiser as to why this made it past an examiner who has even a passing understanding of databases. Take claim 1.:

“A method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment, the method comprising: monitoring a plurality of activities in a social network environment; storing the plurality of activities in a database; generating a plurality of news items regarding one or more of the activities, wherein one or more of the news items is for presentation to one or more viewing users and relates to an activity that was performed by another user; attaching a link associated with at least one of the activities of another user to at least one of the plurality of news items where the link enables a viewing user to participate in the same activity as the another user; limiting access to the plurality of news items to a set of viewing users; and displaying a news feed comprising two or more of the plurality of news items to at least one viewing user of the predetermined set of viewing users.”

This is basic database linking and design, as I have said elsewhere, this is a trivial and obvious use of database filters. The rest of the claims are as bad.

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