Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Facebook Patents Your News Feed...

Check this out. Facebook has just been awarded a patent by the federal government, which it applied for in 2006, for "displaying a news feed of users’ actions in a social network".

There's been some confusion about this, so to clarify, this does NOT mean Facebook owns a patent on the entire idea of a news feed. Most importantly, status updates are not covered. However, it does mean that certain items within your news feed, like messages about people joining groups, becoming friends with others, and giving someone a virtual gift, are indeed covered by the patent.

So, to see the implications of this, no other website or company can implement the same features on their site's news feed unless first given permission by Facebook.

Many people were quite shocked to learn that it was even possible to patent something so ubiquitous. After all, they thought, where was the invention?! News feeds on Web 2.0 sites are everywhere.

In the technology world, it definitely happens. In one notorious case in 1999, was awarded a patent for its "1-Click Ordering System", which is essentially nothing more than an efficient shopping cart mechanism.

The big fear in cyberspace is that Facebook will use this patent to bully its competitors. That fear is made obvious when reading the comments on blogs like However, Wired is correct in refuting that likelihood:

It’s highly unlikely that Facebook will decide to go on the patent warpath — in no small part because it’s bad public relations. Large tech companies are known to build libraries of patents that they use simply as defenses — so say if Google decided that Facebook had replicated a search feature it patented, Facebook could pull out this patent and point at Buzz.

Nevertheless, it's a little frightening to think that a company now legally owns the rights to how we share information about ourselves. Lost in all the hubbub over patents, competition, and innovation is the fact that the user hardly gets any mention. Shouldn't we at least be included in the discussion?


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