Social Networking

Facebook’s News Feed Patent Lock – Vaguely Menacing?

Facebook last week won the right to call the news feed its very own. Patent 7,699,123 was issued by the U.S. Patent Office last Tuesday to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and seven other Facebook executives.

It’s described as a method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment. The method includes, in essence, generating information about a social networking site’s users; attaching links about the activities to the news items; restricting access to the user’s friends or social networking group; and arranging the news items in order.

The patent application was filed Aug. 11, 2006 — a little over three weeks before Facebook launched its News Feed feature.

“The launch of News Feed in 2006 was a pivotal moment in Facebook’s history and changed the way millions of people consumed and discovered information on the site,” Facebook spokesperson Malorie Lucich told TechNewsWorld. “We’re humbled by the growth and adoption of News Feed over time, and pleased with being awarded the patent.”

Patent Fallout

However, several other social networking sites have launched Facebook-type feeds over the years in which users could get updates about their friends’ latest activities.

These sites may now find themselves in a battle with Facebook if it tries to assert ownership of the technology. However, Facebook may not be able to enforce the patent.

“The patent’s pretty general, so I wonder if it’s defensible,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “Clearly, Google and News Corp. will try to break it right off the bat.”

News Corp. owns MySpace, which launched its own news feed-type feature for users, Friend Updates, in late 2007. MySpace did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Other sites that might be impacted include Twitter.

If a legal battle is launched, social networking sites may have to shut down their news feed features until the issue is resolved — or until other social networks dream up completely different and innovative ways of displaying friends’ updates. How that will impact users, and the Internet in general, remain to be seen.

Facebook could dominate the industry if it can beat legal challenges to the patent. “If the patent does hold up under legal challenges, it could put Facebook in a rather powerful position,” Enderle pointed out.

Another Advance in Facebook’s Plans

Winning approval for the news feed patent is another step in Facebook’s longstanding strategy of being the only site users need. “It’s a customer containment and control strategy,” Enderle explained. “They want people to come to Facebook, stay in Facebook, and consume their news and tweets in Facebook.”

The patent could also form part of a multi-level defense against Google, whose Buzz network shook up social networking site operators. “When Google launched Buzz, it scared the social networking people pretty badly,” Enderle commented. “You’ll probably see more from Facebook as it shores up their defenses.”

Could Facebook have foreseen where Google was going when the former filed the patent application back in 2006?

Probably, Enderle said. “They’ve seen Google coming for a long time.”

Restricting the Field of Battle

Perhaps lost in all the excitement is the fact that Facebook’s news feeds consist only of information about users that they generate and send out. This distinguishes it from other types of news feeds such as RSS and Atom, which are of a more general nature.

Google and other large sites have been using RSS and Atom feeds for some time. Google, for example, began offering news feeds using these technologies back in 2005.

The difference may mean Facebook’s battles will be mainly restricted to other social networking sites using news feed technology similar to its own, instead of having to take on users of the entire field of news feed technology. Also, instead of having to tackle Google, Microsoft and Yahoo head-on, it may mean that Facebook will only have to battle the three over those features of their sites that employ social networking technology.

Still, the issuing of the patent may remain a bone of contention. “This is another great example of why the patent system is totally broken,” griped Nick Dalton, chief technology officer at Pervasent. “Patenting news feeds will not make anyone’s life better or encourage innovation in social networks or on the Web in general,” he told TechNewsWorld.

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