Facebook befriends the Patent Office

The now-familiar Facebook ‘newsfeed’ interface was launched amidst some controversy in September 2006.  Users have since been welcomed with a rundown of bite sized bits of information on the online activities of their ‘friends’.  Last week, Facebook was granted a patent in the US (filed 11 August 2006) for the method by which this ‘newsfeed’ is automatically generated and displayed to users.  In the context of the online social networking revolution, the ferocity with which the world wide web protects its freedom and speed of online innovation, this is an interesting development.

The US Patent granted to Mark Zuckerberg et al. is entitled “Dynamically providing a news feed about a user to a social network” and primarily claims a method for:

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.

An Australian application for a similar patent (System and method for dynamically providing a news feed about a user of a social network) was filed by Facebook on 7 August 2007 and has not yet been examined.

The generation of alerts or ‘news items’ about a user’s network of contacts and the display in a one-view interface is now common to MySpace, Twitter, Google Buzz, LinkedIn, Flickr and Windows Live. 

Facebook has not provided any indication of its strategy for use of this significant intellectual property: active, defensive, pre-emptive?  The response to the grant from the cyberspace community has been unsurprisingly disapproving.  Multiply.com has been flagged as a potential prior art threat; obviousness has been questioned; and protests against the patentability of software have been renewed.  

This promises to be an interesting space to watch if these arguments are taken to the US Patent and Trademarks Office or the US Courts.  From an Australian perspective, we await IP Australia’s decision in relation to granting Facebook’s application with the benefit of having witnessed the reaction to the grant of the US patent.

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