Memo to TBI: The Facebook and Google Location Patents Are Not the Same

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 12:21 PM EDT

Patents are tricky things because the language gets so specific and there's always the possibility of collision between two granted patents. Nick Saint at Business Insider apparently read about the Facebook patent on using locations in social networks (he credited Jay Yarrow on BI who credited Erick Schonfeld on TechCrunch who actually credited me for breaking the story). Saint found some Google (GOOG) patent that he proclaimed covered the same ground and that predated Facebook's. Just a slight problem: the two patents actually seem to describe significantly different systems.

The Google patent explicitly describes a system that receives locations from mobile device users and, if they are "identified as a friend" and are close enough to each other, exchanges the locations of the users. In essence, as you can see with the basic functions of Google Latitude, this is a system to help users know when friends are in the same area. It also depends on facilitating a mobile device-to-mobile device exchange of location information.

Although that might sound pretty similar to the Facebook patent on a casual read, it's not. There are a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Facebook's patent applies specifically to users of a social networking service.
  • The location always accompanies a manually entered status message.
  • A computer with a database system collects the data and then displays it for the social network users. Not all users have to be on mobile devices to see the status and location.
  • Mobile devices are not restricted to receiving location messages via email or text messaging.
  • Users do not have to be within a given distance of each other, although there are some dependent claims that bring that function into play, optionally.
Google's patent describes a way to facilitate direct user-to-user communication of location, within certain rules. Facebook's describes how to centrally maintain and make available a database of status messages accompanied by locations, so whether friends are near or not, they can still see your location and status.

I've found that wading through patent language is often thorny and that what seems "obvious" often isn't. For example, yesterday, two readers sent me references that they thought were clearly prior art that would invalidate the Facebook patent. One was number 6,529,136, belonging to IBM (IBM), which filed the application in 2001 and received the patent grant on March 4, 2003. The patent covers, as the first claim describes:

A method of implementing a group proximity driven activity, comprising: identifying the group and members of the group; specifying an activity to be implemented by the group; calculating a proximity center of the group; determining a proximity range of the group that corresponds to the activity; identifying an executable code corresponding to the activity; determining a current location of at least one member of the group relative to the proximity center; determining whether the current location is within the proximity range; and executing the executable code if the current location is within the proximity range.
This system basically describes a mash-up. It's specifically designed to find a location where a group of people might take up a common activity, the current locations of the people, and their directions. This makes no provision for people's status nor for simply telling someone when other people are in the area, whether a common activity is planned or not. So I'd say this patent likely wouldn't conflict with either the Google or Facebook patents.

The other patent, 7,203,502, belongs to AT&T (T), which filed in 2002 and received the patent grant on April 10, 2007. In this case, the patent applies to telecommunications services that would try to facilitate a mutually convenient meeting location.

In a comment on my story yesterday, a third reader pointed to his own patent, 6,469,735, for using GPS systems to automatically notify remote personnel of a physical security breach. To me, that likely has even less relevance than any of the others.

It's easy to understand how Saint jumped to a conclusion that reflection doesn't automatically support. And it's still entirely possible that should any of this come to the attention of a court, he might be vindicated if the Google patent be construed in such a way to supplant Facebook's. Then again, perhaps someone would read the IBM or AT&T patent as really governing the subject matter, with all the later-filed patents "obvious" extensions. But assuming that Google's patent would supersede Facebook's is, at best, premature.

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Image: Flickr user opensourceway, 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.