One of the things we do at Answer Guy Central is Intellectual Property Consulting. I don’t talk about that area of our expertise too often because … well, because it’s not very interesting. Besides, combined with our position in Search Engine Optimization, talking about Intellectual Property is so complicated that once I get started I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop!
Facebook’s Timeline Version, of all things, has given me a chance to talk about Intellectual Property.
The new version of Facebook was supposed to start rolling out almost a month ago. If you’re registered as a Facebook Developer you can turn on Facebook Timeline Version, as I have, but it hasn’t really gone live just yet, because Facebook is being sued for trademark violation by a company with a registered trademark on the word Timelines.
As that company points out, Facebook using the word Timelines could completely destroy their business. And it’s true; this is a software company doing something similar enough to what Facebook’s Timelines Version does that if Facebook starts using the word Timeline they could find themselves with a big problem.
The salient point to their argument, aside from what I just mentioned, is that they have a registered trademark on the word Timeline. Legally (disclosure: I am not an attorney), that’s pretty much a slam-dunk, unless Facebook can get their trademark overturned. I’ve actually gotten trademarks overturned, but for Facebook to get the trademark on so generic a word as Timeline pulled would be difficult, because Facebook has a history of trademarking even more generic words. Timelines points this out pretty clearly:
You can bet that hypocrisy would bode poorly for Facebook in any sort of legal proceeding.
I was thinking about a few silly software patents when I decided to write about this. Facebook’s Patent 7669123 on … essentially nothing … sprung to mind, as did Facebook Patent 7827208, which I’ve told you is at least a little bit less dumb. And Amazon’s Patent 7739139? The worst of all.
But then something else popped into my head, and the little graphic at the top of this piece is a snippet from an old database I still have archived away. As you can see, way back in 1992 when I was writing IYM Software Review, Symantec sent me a piece of project management software. That software’s name? Timeline.
The US Office of Patents and Trademarks follows a tenet called “prior use” in awarding trademark registrations, and I’m pretty sure Symantec using Timeline in 1992 qualifies as prior use. I’m guessing Symantec didn’t file a trademark registration on the word, and that their reason was an assumption that generic words couldn’t actually be trademarked (this was before Microsoft received their trademark on “Windows”).
Also, I’d like to guess that Symantec looked at the fact that you don’t need to register a trademark to “have” it so long as you don’t plan to initiate legal actions against others who use it after you start doing so, and decided that was good enough; they likely figured that they would never sue someone for using a generic term like Timeline.
The question, Facebook and Timeline’s current issue notwithstanding—and you can bet that the outcome will be Facebook paying a licensing fee, goes back to the very idea of patents or trademarks of this sort. NOTHING HAS BEEN INVENTED OR CREATED, NOTHING UNIQUE IS BEING DESCRIBED BY THE WORD TIMELINE, AND NO TRADEMARK SHOULD HAVE BEEN ISSUED.
Software Patents are a bad idea. Generic Trademarks are bad, too. And as I’ve said before, in the Internet age it’s almost impossible to truly protect your intellectual property, anyway.
Facebook? Timelines? If you’re listening, it’s time for a healthy dose of that business change called Coopetition.