The blogosphere is buzzing with reports about a patent issued to Facebook this week, entitled “Dynamically providing a news feed about a user of a social network.” As usual, everybody promptly went off the deep end.
Here’s an illustrative example:
While we’re going to take some time to really dig into this patent, is basics are simple enough. The patent awards Facebook protection for technology “dynamically providing a news feed about a user of a social network.”
Apparently, the title is what defines the scope of a patent. No, wait! Maybe it’s the abstract!
Here is the abstract in its full form:
“A method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment is described. The method includes generating news items regarding activities associated with a user of a social network environment and attaching an informational link associated with at least one of the activities, to at least one of the news items, as well as limiting access to the news items to a predetermined set of viewers and assigning an order to the news items. The method further may further include displaying the news items in the assigned order to at least one viewing user of the predetermined set of viewers and dynamically limiting the number of news items displayed.”
As we see it, this patent is focused on the technology that displays the news feed, rather than the delivery of status updates that often compose them.
The abstract and the title describe something really broad, so the patent must be assertable against the entire Internet! Run for the hills!
OK, back to reality: please remember that, for the most part, the enforceable scope of a patent is defined by the claims. There are some details that change this based on the path the patent took through the Patent Office, but to a first approximation, it is safe to say that the language of the claims defines the scope of protection.
Here’s an example: I’ve worked on applications with such titles as “VIDEO ENDOSCOPE,” “DISK DEVICE,” or, my favorite, “VEHICLE” (the Examiner made us make that one more descriptive, for some reason). Does this mean that my clients managed to patent the general idea of a video endoscope, or a disk device? Of course not. My clients patented whatever is described in the claims.
For the record, here’s a representative independent claim from the Facebook patent:
1. A method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment, the method comprising:
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.
I won’t comment on the scope of these claims, but just keep in mind that, in order for Facebook to get you for infringement of this patent, they’re going to have to show that you are doing all of these things (again, a first approximation, but basically true).
So, no, the social networking sky is not falling. There’s always Bilski to worry about, too.