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Patent for idea of online user communities may bite Facebook (law.com)
22 points by grellas on Apr 2, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 14 comments

If Facebook actually gets shut down because of this, I could see that being a good way to get some meaningful patent reform in the U.S.

Agreed, especially since it's something normal people can easily relate to. But, barring a public relations stunt by Facebook, I suppose this is going to be quietly settled like the RIM patent suit mentioned in the article (another promising, highly visible suit, since an injunction against RIM had the potential to kill all the Blackberries on Capitol Hill).

I hope these insane patents continue to surface, patent trolls seem to be shooting themselves in the foot.

When the government decides Facebook is "Too Big to be Patent Trolled" I think some of the little guys who got eaten alive by business process patents might just fly their airplanes into the patent office or court building!

If anything, shouldn't they fly their airplane into the ones who sued them? Getting angry at the patent office by the time they got their head on straight seems the wrong target at the wrong time.

Does their patent actually include an implementation of their idea? Prior art notwithstanding, it strikes me that if you want to profit from your idea but don't want to be bothered with pesky things like implementation and marketing, all you need to do is to patent it. Its almost certain that sometime in the future someone else will have the same idea.

That's precisely the way U.S. patent law works -- to be entitled to a patent for a new and non-obvious invention, you're not required even to have actually made the invention ("reduced it to practice"), let alone commercialized it.

If you actually conceived the new invention yourself (i.e., you didn't copy it), and you were the first to do so, then basically all you have to do is provide a written description of the invention that would enable a hypothetical "person of ordinary skill" in the relevant art(s) to make and use the invention.

(There are other requirements too, of course - for example, you have to disclose the "best mode," as then subjectively contemplated by you, for practicing the invention; you have to provide at least one written claim, which in essence is an infringement checklist; you have to disclose to the patent examiner all "information material to patentability" that you know about; you can't wait more than one year after the first offer for sale, public use, publication, etc.)

Here's the underlying assumption: The first inventor should be allowed to set up a toll booth for 20 years (originally 17 years) as a reward for "merely" documenting how to practice the invention in a centralized national database, that is, in the Patent Office collection.

That might have made sense 200 years ago. But I've long wondered whether that part of the patent law has outlived its usefulness -- arguably we don't need the same incentives to help build up a national library of engineering knowledge as we did in 1790.

My guess is that this is the patent:


It looks like the patent covers a process for inviting to connect with users or "friending".

I can't believe that anyone hadn't done that before 2001. But I can't quite recall any in particular.

It'll be interesting to see what claim language emerges from reexamination.

You can think of each individual claim in a patent as being a separate "infringement checklist." For a given claim to be infringed, all the elements of the claim must be present in the accused product or method, either literally or in the form of an "equivalent."

A claim is like an AND statement: If any element in a given claim is missing from the accused product or method (and a substantial "equivalent" of the missing element isn't there either), then that claim isn't infringed.

Note, however, that the several claims of a patent are OR'd together -- you might not infringe claim 1, but you still might infringe claim 15. All the patent owner needs to prove is infringement of a single claim.

(This assumes that the accused infringer doesn't prove that the infringed claims are invalid. In over-simplified terms, if the AND statement of a claim returns TRUE when applied to the prior art, then THAT claim is invalid. [Proving obviousness is a more-complicated analysis.])

I like the nice succinct description of claims. Thanks!

Although not a website specifically, ICQ had this functionality in 1996 (though you could still directly send messages to a given ICQ number) - it's now owned by AOL.

AIM also had 'friending' functionality in '97.

LiveJournal also originated the term 'friending,' and was launched in '99.

EverQuest had 'friending' functionality - if you friended someone, you would be notified when they signed on/off, and could easily message them.

So has pretty much every MMO since.

I'm not certain, but I'm willing to bet that there were BBS's and MUDs that had this functionality.

I also remember this feature on the chess interfaces ICC and FICS back in the mid-90s.

This is an excellent example of an obvious patent with prior art on a business method that should never, ever have been granted by the patent office. Hopefully the Bilski case will render the whole issue moot.

This article follows nicely on the heels of Clay Shirky's post that touches on why complex societies fail. The current system of patents desperately needs simplification, but bureaucratic and legal complexity hinder this.

Patents maybe were effective at encouraging innovation before the information age. Now that innovation happens so rapidly, patents slow things down.

Currently, Patents are all about making certain techniques (business processes, algorithms, etc.) illegal unless licensed.

Who honestly reads patents to learn about technology anymore?

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