Patent Gives Facebook Broad Power Over Mobile Location Networking [Update]

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 9:40 AM EDT

Early into a technology it is often possible to nail down broad patents that will make competitors weep. Facebook may have done just that with location-based social networking. A patent issued yesterday has broad claims that would seem to cover much of what Google (GOOG) Latitude, Foursquare, Gowalla, and others try to do in letting users share their locations with others.

Facebook applied for patent number 7,809,805, called Systems and methods for automatically locating web-based social network members, in early 2007. The first independent claim is what caught my eye:

A method of sharing locations of users participating in a social networking service at a geographic location, the method executed by a computer system and comprising: receiving location information and status information from a mobile device of a first user of the social networking service, the location information representing a geographic location of the first user, the status information manually provided by the first user on an input module of the mobile device; associating the location information with the status information of the first user in a database; and sending the status information and the location information of the first user to a second user for display.
Let's break this down into implications:
  • The mobile device could determine position by any method because all it has to do is send the data along with a status message.
  • Notice that the status message must "manually provided by the first user on an input module." However, that would likely cover picking from a list of pre-supplied messages.
  • The location and status have to be held in a database of some sort, and any service is likely to want to keep the data handy.
  • The system has to send the data to a second party.
There are restrictions, but not that many. Claim 2 specifically adds street addresses as "determined by processing a wireless positioning signal detected at a sensor in the mobile device," in other words, a GPS signal translated into an address. The third claim ties up the central system for storing and processing the combinations of locations and statuses:
A computer server for providing a social networking service, comprising: a database module configured to store location information in association with status information of a first user in a database responsive to receiving the location information and the status information from a mobile device of the first user, the location information representing a geographic location of the first user, the status information manually provided by the first user on an input module of the mobile device; and a communication module configured to: receive the location information and the status information associated with the first user from the mobile device; and send the location information and the status information of the first user to a second user for display.
Other claims cover interesting variations on the theme:
  • A user can look for status updates from social network users in a given geographic location.
  • One user can restrict location information to a specified group of other users.
  • A system for sharing locations can depend on users manually entering their locations.
  • Transmission of location information between two users can depend on their proximity to each other.
  • A social networking system implementing such location services would also be covered.
The only thing I could see as broader is having the location information communicated between devices without manual status information. Maybe a patent examiner thought that too inclusive, as two computers exchanging email could potentially be said to share location. However, even at how the patent stands, unless another company can successfully challenge it, Facebook's corporate value just took a big jump -- and that a number of other companies had better quickly consider licensing deals.

[Update: A number of people have brought up other patents that they suggest would invalidate Facebook's. I'm not so sure and cover some of the patents in question in another post.]

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Globe image: RGBStock.com user lusi, 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.