Should BuddyPress Sites Be Worried By New Facebook Patent?

Yesterday, the US Patent Office officially approved this patent by Facebook which was filed way back in May of 2004.

The patent has two main parts:

1. Profile viewing – the members of a social network can manage who can see their profiles and “limited profiles” are shown to non-approved members or the public

2. Messaging – there is a method for members who have an approved relationship to message and contact each other, including through text and email

I’m definitely no lawyer, but I have been trying to decipher all of this to figure out if many BuddyPress sites might be using similar enough features that Facebook could potentially file suit.

The ZDNet blog post about this makes the claim that many tech companies hold patents for “defense purposes” only and don’t necessarily enforce them.

But still it is kind of scary that Facebook would potentially now have one more weapon to stop any BuddyPress powered social network that gets too big for their britches, don’t you think!?

Any thoughts or reassurances?

15 Responses

  • It is ridiculous. Why the patent system still grants such broad and commonplace patents (or why it took them 7 years to grant it in the first place) baffles me. Software should be open source. If you can figure out how to make money from open source then by all means, do it. But don’t hinder mankind by restricting who can use what code.

  • New Recruit

    I think that when Facebook starts suing BuddyPress sites it will have to eventually face down the likes of Google and others which carry similar feature. What would be interesting though is to hear the official thoughts from the developers who work on BuddyPress to see if there is anything that can be done to work around the patent. Obviously this is a ridiculous patent but it would be interesting to see if there would be an option to make those specific features that were listed as options to turn on and off so that a site or company that makes it’s business with these tools can then determine if they feel or don’t feel comfortable adding those features to their service. This puts the choice in the hands of the site owners and if a company did get such a suite they could simply turn the infringing features off or choose to fight the law suit as is.

    • Author

      It sounds like you and Jeff (comment below) are saying something similar. Perhaps some plugins, or even BP core development could help minimize any patent violation.

      Analysts around the web have said they think Google+ is pretty clear as they require all profile information to be public. The ongoing patent wars, if nothing else, are making it a confusing time to know which way is up!

  • New Recruit

    I’m not a lawyer either, but it seems to me that if FB ever did intend to enforce the patent, then they would likely have to sue individual site owners, which would be an un-ending task. Maybe the lawyers at WPMU.org should figure out how to make the plugins more “individualized” so to speak, so it would be more difficult for a large company like FB to sue WPMU with the intention of shooting just one bullet to knock out all sites… just a thought.

    • I agree James. I don’t think it’s something to be concerned about.

      Most Buddypress sites (well at least I am) are using Facebook like buttons, logins etc.

      Cant see why they would have the need to start running sites that support them.

      But yeah, Google + is a whole different story! :)

  • Patents are granted in a vacuum. Those approving them do not know everything about the industry they’re asserting a patent for, and cannot possibly be expected to. This is why they are usually sorted out in court by a victim of infringement lawsuits. Sadly, it could take years before FB attempts to sue someone with the financial backing to defend themselves effectively – but once they do, the patent will be voided under the “prior art”/existing works and/or the “obviousness” of the patent claim. Heck, the HTML 3.2 specs (from 1997) mention user tailoring for interactive sites, which could be used to demonstrate the “obviousness” of the patent 7 years before it was filed. Each of these will effectively get the patent voided and unenforceable, but most smaller businesses and individuals are advised to simply pay off claims rather than fight, so it takes years before they can be successfully challenged.

  • New Recruit

    I agree with James, I think that this patent recognition goes against Google+.

    But also, I wonder why these obviously ambigous patents are approved, knowing that “profile viewing” and “messaging” are features in most professional networks as, for example, LinkedIn.

    Is LinkedIn using some features that, somehow, belong to Facebook???
    Sounds strange :O

    • No – don’t worry about it. You can’t own “rights” to a simple word, so FB has no standing to complain.

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