Different companies have different needs for patents, but in general, protection for inventions in high tech has been a foundation of corporate value and competitive position. So it seems odd that two of the shining lights of social networking, Facebook and Twitter, have little to nothing showing up in filed patent applications.
Taking a quick look at the number of patent applications currently on file, Facebook had four: community translation on a social network, sharing digital content on a social network, systems and methods for dynamically generating a privacy summary, and systems and methods for dynamically generating segmented community flyers. Twitter had zero.
Patent activity can vary by company and strategy. For example, in 2008, IBM (IBM) received 4,169 patent grants, while Google (GOOG) had only 58. Granted patents show evidence of longer-term activity, as it can generally take years for an application to go through the complete examination process, and a good number are ultimately rejected. Furthermore, it can take up to 18 months for a filed application to become public, and a company has up to a year to file after publicly disclosing an invention, so there can be a significant gap between a company's activities and the earliest public signs of patent activity. However, after a few years, you might expect something to show up.
Facebook's earliest filing was July 25, 2006, and its latest was December 5, 2008, so more may be in process. And some companies, like Google, tend to treat their most important developments as trade secrets so as not to disclose their workings at all. Still, for a company so much in the center of a new part of the industry, four filings seems light, particularly as none of them seem groundbreaking.
Twitter is an even more extreme case. Literally nothing came up with the company name, nor did anything seem to appear searching for the corporate predecessors Odeo or Obvious Corporation or with Evan Williams, Biz Stone, or Twitter inventor Jack Dorsey as either inventors or assignees. Given that Twitter was spun off in 2007 and that reputedly tens of millions have been invested into the company, it seems odd that no patent filings come to light. Perhaps Twitter is too "obvious" (using the legal terminology for an invention that could reasonably be anticipated by others in the field), or maybe the company has effectively hidden the patents under corporate subsidiaries or under individuals, a tactic sometimes used to keep competitive information, for all practical purposes, out of sight. At least the company did file for a trademark in April 2007.
It seems highly implausible that investors would put significant capital into a company without some safeguard on its intellectual property. I'll be making some further inquiries to see if there's more information to be had.
Image via Flickr user adulau, CC 2.0.