You thought that social networking site Twitter, launched in 2006, was an exemplar of internet entrepreneurship, at the forefront of digital innovation, bravely creating entirely new ways for people to interact, communicate and socialise?
US patent 6,408,309, filed in 2000, discloses “a method and system for creating an interactive virtual community of famous people, or those people who wish to attain the status of a famous person … The virtual community of the present invention is unique in that the members of the virtual community can update, modify or revise their individual profile, and interact with other members of the virtual community, as well as the non-members of the virtual community”.
And the patentee is suing Twitter for infringement.
The disclosure in the patent is undeniably useful – but it’s difficult to see what is new or inventive about it, even in 2000. SixDegrees.com (now defunct) was launched in 1997 and allowed its users to “create profiles, invite friends, organise groups, and surf other user profiles”. Classmates.com started in 1995 and allows users to locate old school friends. On Cyworld.com, launched in 1999, users have a customisable “apartment like” space, can post information about themselves on the site and cultivate ilchon (friendships) with each other.
Even if the patent is valid, Twitter may not be infringing. The patent claims the selection and listing of people in various fields of endeavour, and the compiling and publishing of a personal profile based on biographical information. Twitter does neither; if anything, the disclosure is closer to the Facebook model.
A spokesman for Twitter said that “we will vigorously defend ourselves, and we are concerned about whether the patent system is properly encouraging innovation”.
Indeed. And on that point, this may not be the last time you hear of a social networking patent infringement suit. According to an IP Watchdog article written by Mark Nowotarski there are at least 3,500 published social networking US patent applications, though the total number on file might be twice that number and perhaps another 25 per cent have been filed with nonpublication requests. Reportedly, only about 350 social networking patents have been issued. One recent notorious example is Amazon’s patent US 7,739,139 for “A networked computer system [that] provides various services for assisting users in locating, and establishing contact relationships with, other users”. It could take another 10 years for all of the currently filed patent applications to be allowed or abandoned – by which time many of the inventions will either have become widely adopted or irrelevant.