Facebook status update (Part 1): The legal battle behind Facebook Timeline

We think the folks at Facebook been busy.  From “Timeline” to “Typosquatters” to “Tight New Restrictions” on use of brand assets, there’s plenty for users to absorb.  This post is about Facebook’s Timeline lawsuit.  Stay tuned for our next two posts which will deal with “Typosquatters” and brand asset changes respectively.

According to Facebook’s Form 10-Q (filed with the United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission on 1 May), it has settled with Timelines Inc, which runs the chronology website timelines.com.

Timelines Inc was founded in 2007, and has registered trade marks in the US in relation to “providing a website that gives users the ability to create a customized Web page featuring user-defined information about historical, current and upcoming events” for “Timelines”, “Timelines.com” and the Timelines logo.  Interestingly, the case did not deal with the Timelines logo itself, but we thought it definitely had some similarities to Facebook’s “f” logo.  Judge for yourself here.

As many of you will remember, in late 2011 Facebook generated a lot of hype around the fact that your Facebook “wall” would now be called Facebook “timeline”.  Given Timelines Inc’s existing legal rights, using the word “timeline” seems an interesting move from a company which values its own intellectual property highly, holds trade marks for the terms “face”, “wall” and “like”, and has sued other companies for using “book” in their name.

Timelines sued Facebook for trademark infringement to stop it from using the term “timeline”.  It also claimed that for at least a week after Facebook’s announcement, when users were looking for the Timelines.com Facebook page, Facebook hijacked the URL so that users were redirected to a page touting Facebook’s profile redesign.  Timelines requested damages in the amount of any advertising revenues Facebook generated on any of its timeline pages.  As indicated in Facebook’s recent Form-10Q, that amount would have been massive.

Facebook fired back, requesting summary judgment on that basis that its use of the term “timeline” was fair because the term was generic, and that the trade mark should be cancelled for that reason.

The United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois held that Facebook had failed to show that the disputed trade marks were merely descriptive, and denied the motion for summary judgment.  Unfortunately for us IP geeks, the parties settled before trial, which means no judgment on the interesting hijacking issue.

We don’t know how much Facebook might have paid to keep using the term “timeline”, but according to its Form 10-Q it “was not material to [Facebook’s] business, financial condition or results of operations”.