Remember back in February when Facebook was awarded United States Patent 7669123 for Social Networking? Remember how little sense that made? Well, our friends at the United States Patents and Trademarks Office have set the bar for stupidity even higher. Friends, I give you USPTO example # 7,739,139 of not understanding what a patent is, or even what a patent is supposed to be for.
Let’s start with the basics. Again. In general, software patents are a very bad idea. They tend to say almost nothing and stifle rather than encourage innovation and development. They don’t generally describe anything unique, which is supposed to be a tenet of what patents are for. Amazon 7739139 is no exception, and in describing something so obvious 7739139 is just . . . well, judge for yourself:
To start, let me state again that I’m not an attorney. But I’ve dealt with Intellectual Property for a very long time, successfully defended against a trademark infringement claim over my software Uninstall for Windows, and advise companies on Intellectual Property. From a layperson’s perspective, I get this stuff.
This week the good folks at Amazon.com received US Patent 7,739,139. And I’m flabbergasted. As I told you when Facebook received their Patent for Social Networking, patents and the applications filed for them are supposed to describe something unique, and as software is mostly a representation of an idea rather than a thing it shouldn’t generally be patentable at all.
And Amazon’s new patent 7739139 describes . . . computer networks. Or Facebook. Or nothing at all.
Amazon’s rationale behind the filing for 7,739,139 is that an Amazon-owned company called PlanetAll was the “first” social network. It’s an interesting argument, and might even go some way to counteract the fact that the filing for 7,739,139 happened years after Facebook’s patent filings or even their existence.
But 7,739,139 doesn’t describe anything tangible. In describing social networking in their abstract for 7,739,139 Amazon has drawn a picture that could represent any computer network.
When Facebook got their social networking patent I was at least able to give them credit for attempting to describe something. 7,739,139 ‘s application doesn’t really even go that far.
I’ve said this before: I don’t know whether I’m more upset that the USPTO has misunderstood the very idea of what a patent is, or that Amazon, with 7,739,139 in hand, is likely to start suing any and everyone who runs a social network—which is one very large pool of people and companies.
If you’re at all concerned about this—and you should be—I implore you to contact the Office of Patents and Trademarks to get patent 7,739,139 invalidated. And if you’re MySpace, Twitter, or another social network and you don’t make big noise about this, well, enjoy the next fifteen years in court because somehow Amazon managed to get 7,739,139 pushed through USPTO in just two years.
“…It’s an interesting argument, and might even go some way to counteract the fact that the filing for 7,739,139 happened years after Facebook’s patent filings or even their existence.”
You have this wrong; this application derives support from 1997/1998, long before Zuckerberg ever dreamed of ripping off his buddies at Havhad. So they predate his and much other work by a wide margin.
Well, yes and no.
You are COMPLETELY correct in that the “prior art” predates Facebook. However, the patent application for 7739139 came two years AFTER the application for 7669123.
My point, of course, makes either position moot; the 7,739,139 patent doesn’t say anything. It could just as easily have been written to describe Bob Metcalfe’s original patent on Ethernet. And USPTO granting this patent, either on its own merit or based on being earliest art (despite not being applied for until 2008) was a mistake.
Jeff, WADR you don’t know how to read this. This APPLICATION was effectively filed in November 1997; the fact is, applicants are allowed to file a case, and then file “related” cases afterwards which enjoy the same priority date. Often this is done piecemeal due to PTO delays in examining the subject matter. So this case could be filed yesterday, but SLA as it claims subject matter contained in the November 1997 filing, it is as if it was filed on that earlier date. The FB filing is not “prior art.” As for Metcalfe’s patent, I’m sure there was no shortage of villagers then, too, trying to burn him at the stake for his heresy in getting a patent. Every era has its anti-patent fanatics.
Fair enough. And without looking at the history of the original applications from once upon a time I’ll happily cede the possibility that there’s a definable link.
But none of that addresses the real point: Amazon has patented . . . nothing real. And that’s supposed to be what patents are for; you can’t patent an idea.
They won’t enforce it…
Facebook hasn’t enforced theirs…
I bet nothing will come of it.
They know if it goes to court that it will not be enforced.
I worked for PlanetAll around 1998 and have read the patent. If you used the site you would understand that PlanetAll was a very unique thing in those days (SixDegrees was a bit later as I recall.)
The ability to maintain your own contact information, link to your friends and have that information replicated was indeed new and novel. I’m not a big fan of software or systems patents but there is enough here to make parts of it enforceable IMHO.
Tom, I appreciate you weighing in.
I get the feeling you and I will have to “agree to disagree”. I went back and re-read the story and I’m still taking away that even if PlanetAll was “first” in some regard(s), the only thing that was unique—and important tenet of patentability—was that they were first to do cobble together some ideas. And ideas can’t be patented; only actual things/processes can be.
Oh: And since Amazon’s patent filing post-date Facebook’s, and others’, it’s moot, isn’t it? “I swear, I did that first, please invalidate these in-place patents” doesn’t work very often!
Thanks again, Tom . . .
TJ: PlanetAll is after this patent, which was filed in 1997.
The core functionality (maintain your contact info, create a friend link, provide updates automatically based on permissions) was implemented back around 1997. I don’t have visibility to their early filings but I’m sure that was claimed quite early.
The first implementation on the front end was Cold Fusion. What I worked on was taking separating the presentation and logical tiers and implementing them in ASP/COM. The back end was always database tables (Oracle maybe for a bit, but mostly MSSQL).
The patent mentions relational database tables. I don’t know if a wide claim would hold up, like a NOSQL-type implementation. As far as I know facebook uses MySql which would put it pretty close to the implementation we did at PlanetAll.
I agree software patents are trouble.
Tom, thanks for the deep background. Here’s my objection:
if the core functionality is “create a link” (to whatever) or do an if’/then action (permission based update), then … THEY STILL DIDN’T CREATE ANYTHING. They just named something that A) already existed and B) was “obvious” (and thus not patentable).
Of course, this conversation, fun though it is, is ultimately not the point. The point is thatthing we already agree on and that the USPTO isn’t prepared to administer: software patents are a bad idea