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Facebook Gets Broad Patent on Digital Media Tagging

Last Updated May 17, 2011 4:35 PM EDT

Facebook has done well with the Friendster patents and patent applications that it acquired. Just last week, a patent application for passing personal info between users based on degrees of separation became public. Now, thanks to the Friendster IP purchase, Facebook pretty much owns the technology for publicly identity-tagging digital media of any sort in a database.

Patent number 7,945,653 is titled Tagging digital media. If you added "with someone's identity," this would be one of the rare cases where the title would reasonably describe what the patent covers. Here's the critical first independent claim:
A method comprising: receiving from a device of a first user a selection of an item of digital media, wherein the item of digital media is stored in a database; receiving from the device of the first user an identification of a person associated with the selected item of digital media; responsive to receiving the information identifying the person, sending a notification to a device of a second user that the person has been identified in connection with the item of digital media; and enabling the identified person to reject the identification, wherein the identified user is different from the first user.
Breaking it down, the claim involves the following:
  • There is a database of unspecified digital media.
  • Someone on a device (computer, smartphone, tablet, or what have you) brings up a file and associates it with the identity of a second person.
  • The second person gets a notification and can reject the identification.
That is incredibly broad. Notice what isn't in that claim as an inherent limitation:
  • the context of a social network
  • the type of database (or even what might constitute a database)
  • in what form the files are used or made available to anyone else
  • whether there is any sort of pre-defined relationship between the two users
  • what type of digital file is in question: photo, video, ebook, article, web page, audio, or game, for example
This patent isn't broad enough to cover any conceivable tagging of images, but in terms of commercial power, this is another big club now in Facebook's hands. Additional claims add details (such as when the person notified is someone other than the one associated with the file or storing the associations between people and files), but they don't restrict the reach of the first one. An additional independent claim even appears to cover code that would do this:
A computer program product comprising a non-transitory computer-readable storage medium containing computer program code for: receiving from a device of a first user a selection of an item of digital media; receiving from the first user an identification of a person associated with the selected item of digital media; responsive to receiving the information identifying the person, sending a notification to a second user that the person has been identified in connection with the item of digital media; and enabling the identified person to reject the identification, wherein the identified user is different from the first user.
Letting people associate each other with digital material in a database, whether as a way to further document the contents or to make people aware of the files, has become a standard feature in social media. And now Facebook has a great deal of control over who can do this and who can't.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.