Facebook Joins the Patent Smackdown Culture on a New Front

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 3:53 PM EST

Mobile patent wars have raged for some months. Now it's time for high tech battles, phase II: patent infringement suits in social networking. As part of a now year-long ongoing dispute, Facebook filed suit against Phoenix Media/Communications, which owns an alt-weekly and an alternative rock radio station in Boston. Given how young and in flux the social media industry is, this type of early assault is likely to recur.

About a year ago, Phoenix Media filed suit against Facebook for allegedly infringing patent number 6,253,216, Method and apparatus for providing a personal page (issued under the name of Phoenix subsidiary Tele-Publishing). The first and most important claim is as follows:

A method for providing a personal page on a computer system accessible to a plurality of remote users through a computer network, the remote users having profile information stored in the computer network and accessible to other remote users, comprising the steps of:
  1. acceptable profile information from a plurality of remote users;
  2. prompting a page-creating remote user with a plurality of page templates for the personal page and receiving a template selection from the remote user;
  3. prompting the page-creating remote user to enter text to the personal page and receiving entered text from the remote user;
  4. prompting the page-creating remote user to select or enter graphical information to display on the personal page and receiving the selection or entry from the remote user;
  5. storing attributes representing each selection or entry made by the page-creating remote user in one or more databases;
  6. providing the page-creating remote user with means to input security parameters for the personal page, the security parameters specifying authorization of at least one other remote user to access the personal page;
  7. storing the security parameters in one or more databases; and
  8. displaying the personal page upon request only to remote users who are authorized to access the personal page.
Although Phoenix used the technology for online dating, the patent -- filed for in 1997 and granted in 2001 â€" would seem to cover the personal pages on Facebook ... or many other online services. (Why do I suspect that Facebook is not the only company to hear from Phoenix?) Now, a year later, Facebook is asserting two patents in a countersuit.

This might seem like an aberration, but then so did the initial patent infringement suits in the mobile space, and look how knotted up that has become. And, as further correlation, when I wrote about Facebook's location-based social networking patent, I received a number of emails from different patent holders and lawyers who all seemed to think that they had applicable patent claims that predated those of Facebook. Between that and the tensions building up between Facebook and Google, I suspect this could be just the beginning of a wave of social networking patent fights. Remember the saying: Follow the money... and eventually you will run into the lawyers.

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Image: Flickr user Intersection Consulting, CC 2.0.
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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.