Facebook Seeks Patent on Passing Personal Info Between Users

Last Updated May 12, 2011 3:43 PM EDT

Buying Friendster's patents and patent applications was one of the smartest moves Facebook ever made. Today brought publication of another Facebook patent application (filed December 2010) based at least in part on Friendster's original filings. And should this one win approval from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it would give Facebook another potential weapon to keep its social-network rivals at bay.

The new application is titled Controlling Access of User Information Using Social-Networking Information. The concept is to use degrees of separation between people to control whether one social network user can retrieve information about a second. If there is a close enough relationship between them (in Facebook terms, think of the difference between friends and friends of friends), then the first user gets the information. Too great a degree of separation, and the request is denied.

What makes this particular application potentially broad reaching is the structure of the claims, in particular, the first independent one:
A method comprising: accessing, at one or more computing devices, a query submitted by a first user; retrieving, by the one or more computing devices, information concerning one or more second users; retrieving, by the one or more computing devices, a degree of separation between the first user and each second user within a social-networking system; and for each second user, if the degree of separation between the first user and the second user is less than or equal to a threshold degree of separation, then sending, by the one or more computing devices, the information concerning the second user to the first user in response to the query.
In other words:
  • The approach involves computers.
  • One person submits a request -- an open-ended description that could mean an inquiry or an action that would result in seeing information, like reading someone's wall -- for information about another user to the system.
  • The system checks the degree of separation between the two people. The description leaves open whether the system calculates the degree of separation or pulls an already calculated and stored number.
  • The system determines whether the degree of separation is low enough to allow access to the data. If so, the system delivers the information to the first user.
Remember, it's only an application, not an actual patent (yet, at least). There are further refinements, such as letting the second user set the degree of separation, notifying the first user if the data is denied, or having the second user specify the information.

This might seem a ridiculous patent. After all, what social network doesn't in some form allow users to obtain information about each other based on the relationship between them? The kicker in this case is that one of the applications on which this one is based already received a patent in 2009.
Patent number 7,478,078, titled "Method for sharing relationship information stored in a social network database with third party databases," covers the case of a third party database seeking relationship information for someone in that database. And because Facebook could base the application on ones filed in 2004, it would have an effective date that predated much of the development in social networking.

It's not that any one of these patent applications that Facebook is pursuing or patents already granted could lock everyone else out of social networking. Taken together, though, they could make it very difficult for other companies to compete. And that's sort of the idea.

Related: Image: morgueFile user ronnieb, site standard license.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    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.