Looking at Facebook’s news feed patent

Last week several news sources reported on the publication of a patent on news feeds granted to Facebook, but I didn’t want to comment until I had read it in full.  Behold US Patent 7,669,123, protecting a system that dynamically provides “a news feed about a user of a social network”. The abstract reads:

“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.”

So, the patent protects a method that will associate social network users with an informational stream, which will be displayed to a number of other users dynamically. Is it just me, or does this sound extremely basic? Where is the novelty? Where is the inventive step? This is pretty obvious stuff! RSS feeds and news streams are relatively old, and the only big difference here is that it is applied to social networks. Just to make sure that I am not missing an amazing innovative step, I went through the patent claims. The first one reads:

“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.”

In plain English, this will take information from a social network profile, store it in a database, and then generate news streams that can be linked to other user profiles, and can be viewed and/or filtered in any manner. In other words, Facebook has been granted a patent for trivial database information handling. Really, this is all the above is. Storing, linking and filtering data is what every database in the world does. What is so unique about the above? Nothing! This is basic stuff, even by the USPTO’s low standards. Further claims are similarly obvious:

“16. A system for displaying a news feed comprising: a social network environment; a module configured to monitor a plurality of activities in a social network environment; a storage medium for storing the plurality of activities in a database; a module configured to generate 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; a link component configured to attach 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; a privacy component configured to limit access to the plurality of news items to a set of viewing users; and a media generator configured to display 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.”

Again, this describes a trivial use of database tables. Should every use of database filtering be granted a patent? The answer should obviously be negative. It seems like the software patent standard in the U.S. is so low that all one needs is to get a clever patent attorney to attach a lot of mumbo jumbo to mundane database functions, and voilà, you are given a patent.

Besides the appalling quality of this patent, I am concerned that it will seriously affect the social network developing environment. Just as an example, academic and professional social networks (such as LinkedIn and Academia.edu) already use news feeds, and by reading the Facebook patent they appear to be infringing. News feeds have become an integral part of social networks, and any patent that protects such feature will place Facebook at a great advantage over its competitors. But I am also concerned that the patent is so broad that it affects other innovative uses of social networking. For example, there are several open source projects which allows one to create a social network on the go. As far as I can tell, most of these offer news feed implementation, which means they are infringing in the U.S.

I wonder what is Facebook’s strategy here. They could simply be looking to stifle competitors. The obvious result of this is that they will probably attempt to get licences from some prominent social networks and the aforementioned open source projects. In the longer run, this could be used to become the only name in social networking. Not good news at all.

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