In a development potentially as meaningful and chilling for social networks as Amazon‘s one-click patent was for nascent e-commerce ventures, Facebook has secured a patent for the social network news feed.
It’s worth noting right off the bat that, after less than a decade, Amazon’s one-click patent was struck down because people were able to show that there was sufficient “prior art” (pre-existing know-how) to portray Amazon’s patent as something less than non-obvious.
Will Facebook’s patent ultimately meet the same fate?
Let’s take a look at the patent. There are a few dimensions to it, according to my reading (note: I am not a patent attorney, nor do I pretend to be one, but I have read a lot of patents over the past few years):
- It’s limited to social network environments
- It’s predicated on user affinity — that is, the news feed is generated because users have created an affinity, so raw information feeds aren’t within its scope
- It includes the ability to generate advertising based on news items
- It covers the ability for users to delete items and the news feed to reconstitute itself using that information on the reload
A key question is, “What is a news feed?” If a news feed consists of status updates, then Twitter and LinkedIn are in a world of hurt. Some have speculated that a news feed doesn’t touch on status updates, but the patent portrays the “news feed” concept thusly:
A system and method for dynamically presenting a news feed about activities of a user of a social network is provided. A user (the viewing user) of a social network may choose to view a news feed about another user (the subject user) in the social network. A list of the subject user’s activities within the social network may be drawn from various databases within the social network.
This description and other wording in the patent seem to clearly indicate that a news feed is based on affinity in a social network and update messages emanating from those affinities.
But it’s an interesting thing, this affinity concept — is Amazon a social network of buying? Do I, through my purchase of the latest Green Day album, create an affinity with “customers who bought this item also bought”? Is that list of products Amazon generates just a news feed based on affinity? Is Amazon a social network? Is Netflix? Is AIM?
The patent was filed on August 11, 2006. Was there enough prior art by 2006 around affinity updates to call Facebook’s filing into question?
Well, Twitter was launched in July 2006. That’s an interesting benchmark. LinkedIn was launched in May 2003. However, despite a long history of social networking sites (from Classmates to Friendster to a host of non-US sites you’ve probably never heard of), it seems that Facebook did pioneer the news feed concept, at least on a mass level. And while patents can be filed up to a year after the public appearance of a feature, it seems Facebook filed the patent just before its news feeds hit the site, so there isn’t any case to be made that the invention preceded the patent filing.
But as the Amazon case shows, prior art can be rightfully claimed from a number of sources that a patent inspector can miss. Patent inspectors are not always clear on what they’re evaluating, and finding parallels or prior art in other patents is a difficult task. Motivated amateurs are legion and potentially better informed, and the Facebook patent is certain to provoke tight scrutiny from many quarters.
Ultimately, this is such a potentially chilling and dominating patent that I’m almost sure it will end up in court. With user affinity feeds possibly established via Twitter and LinkedIn (or elsewhere) before August 11, 2006, and plenty of money and ambition sloshing around in the social media space (e.g., with Google taking an increased interest in social media while harboring little love for Facebook), this patent’s day in court seems inevitable.
In the years it may take to resolve this, Facebook will hold a very important patent. However, I doubt very few people will be clicking the “Like” link when this post appears in my news feed on Facebook.