Facebook Locks Down an Important Patent on Social Gift Giving

Last Updated Jun 29, 2011 8:17 AM EDT

Facebook has been on a roll of late, nailing a number of patent grants that will help it retain dominance in social networking by creating barriers for competitors. Yesterday came patent number 7,970,657, Giving gifts and displaying assets in a social network environment.

This isn't a result of the Friendster IP acquisition. The application file date was April 2007 and the listed inventor, Jared Morgenstern, went to work at Facebook in 2006. As the first independent claim indicates (when you break it down), the patent doesn't necessarily prevent other social networks from facilitating gift giving. But it could make the process much harder:
A method for representing ownership of an asset in a social network environment, the method comprising: receiving a request from a first user of the social network environment to purchase the asset for a second user; recording information about a purchase of the asset from a vendor; associating, by a server for the social networking environment, the purchased asset with a profile of the second user; sending for display to a viewing user an association between the purchased asset and the second user on a feed display page; sending for display to the viewing user, in connection with the association between the purchased asset and the second user, information indicating that a third user, with whom the viewing user has established a connection in the social network, owns the asset, and information including a name of the first user who gave the asset to the second user, on the feed display page.
Breaking that down:
  • One social network wants to buy a gift for another user through the network.
  • The network arranges the purchase from a vendor and records all the information.
  • The network then associates the purchase with the profile of the gift recipient.
  • The network displays the receipt of the gift and the name of the person who gave it on the information stream of a third user who has a connection with the recipient.
As a number of dependent claims then say that the asset can be real, digital, or virtual; extend the types of displays to Web pages and icons; and lets the viewing user be giver, recipient, or someone with a connection to either of them. Additional independent claims cover the gift buying process when accompanied by a display of the gift; the process of buying a digital gift when accompanied by a display of the gift; and the process when it also has a link to the recipient's profile and a link to the vendor to buy the item in question.

The '657 patent is important because the notification process can serve two functions. On a practical level, the buyer on a social network will want acknowledgment of the purchase and also want the recipient to know about the gift. But because the viewing user can be either the giver or recipient, the patent has now made it tricky for any other social network to enable gift giving, because the other network may not be able to acknowledge the purchase to either the giver or recipient.

As important is the nature of interactions on social networks. Many users want their activities to be obvious to others. If that isn't possible with gift giving, a social network might not be able to effectively implement such a feature, which Facebook has shown can be a source of significant revenue. It's quite the clever legal and technical maneuver.

Related: Image: morgueFile user cohdra, site standard license.
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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.

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