Facebook awarded patent with “News Feed” and “Social Network” in title. EVERYBODY PANIC!

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.


An example of why Facebook self-governance may be unworkable

I previously discussed the fact that Facebook was kicking around the idea of reworking its terms of use, and to solicit user feedback before implementing certain types of changes.  Facebook stated that a user vote would be considered if 30% of active registered users voted, meaning that 50 million users would need to participate.  As unlikely as that seems under normal circumstances, there are probably even more reasons why this is unworkable.

Case in point:  In the past couple of days Facebook rolled out a massive change to its layout, prompting dissent from a great number of users.  This morning, a new application appeared, prompting people to vote for or against the new layout.  One blogger, at least, was impressed by this new interactiveness:

I must credit Facebook with having learned something from its previous mistakes as they are at least providing a way for users to feed back their feelings in the form of a “thumbs up or down” vote, as well as a page for people to voice their opinions in greater detail. At the time of writing, the votes in favor of the new layout were at 6,111 while votes against have already reached nearly 75,000 and are increasing every second.

However, take a look at the application page.  It states, in the bottom right corner, that this application “was not developed by Facebook.”

So, is this an official Facebook vote?  Is it a phishing scam?  Does it have any meaning whatsoever?  And is there any way to know?  I can’t tell.

In the current situation, it’s possible that, at worst, a whole lot of people just added an application that they don’t need, and gave it permission to grab their user data without knowing who wrote it or what they plan to do with the user data.

In future situations, however, if official votes were to take place, it will be important to get as many people to participate in the official vote as possible.  If the outcome could be rigged by diverting people to unofficial voting sites and duping them into thinking that they participated in the official vote, it may be even harder to get to that magic 30%.

Facebook’s latest attempt at “friendliness”

Facebook just released a statement concerning future changes to their Terms of Use:

Beginning today, we are giving you a greater opportunity to voice your opinion over how Facebook is governed. We’re starting this off by publishing two new documents for your review and comment. The first is the Facebook Principles, which defines your rights and will serve as the guiding framework behind any policy we’ll consider—or the reason we won’t consider others. The second document is the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which will replace the existing Terms of Use. With both documents, we tried hard to simplify the language so you have a clear understanding of how Facebook will be run. We’ve created separate groups for each document so you can read them and provide comments and feedback. You can find the Facebook Principles here and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities here. Before these new proposals go into effect, you’ll also have the ability to vote for or against proposed changes.

I suppose it’s nice to see that Facebook is trying to take the worries of its users to heart.  If you pay attention to the fine print, though, they are — unsurprisingly — not promising to really do anything.  More analysis after the jump.

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Quick thought about Facebook’s EULA

I’m working on a longer post about Facebook’s EULA, but one thing about this whole mess deserves separate comment.  A recently released comment by a Facebook spokesman states the following:

We are not claiming and have never claimed ownership of material that users upload.

OK, so, Facebook doesn’t “own” user submitted content.  That’s great.  However, they take:

an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

Uh… so… they can do basically whatever they want with it, including using it in their advertising, selling the right to use it to other people, basing derivative works off of it, etc.  But at least they don’t claim to own it!  Yay!

Also, both the old version and the new, controversial version of the Facebook EULA have been made available in the EULA gallery.