A patent on social networking?

Late last month, social networking site Friendster was awarded a patent relating to social networking. Specifically, the patent deals with things like allowing “individuals to indicate other individuals with whom they have a personal relationship”, and several other broad aspects of social networking in general. If Friendster decides to act on this patent, things could get ugly for the world of social networking.

Read for yourself

The specific patent is available for review at US Patent website; just search for the patent number 7,069,308. The patent was filed over three years ago – virtually an eon in relative web time, since Facebook was nothing but an idea back then. However, the awarding of this patent has the potential to shake sites like Facebook, MySpace, and numerous other social networking sites.

That is, of course, if Friendster decides to actually act on the patent. That’s completely up to them – and while any court action would certainly take time, it would be hard to imagine they don’t have envy over the sucess of sites like MySpace and Facebook. Friendster has been interested in patents before, so this new one perhaps isn’t a surprise. What is a surprise, is how overly-broad the patent is – it could be interepreted to cover basically every social networking site that exists today.

Change is needed

While I’m no lawyer, I do believe that some change needs to occur in the area of patents. Like copyright law before, it’s outdated when it comes to rapidly-changing technology; applying 20th-century thinking to 21st-century concepts sometimes just doesn’t work. The original idea of patents was to protect creators and their innovations; the idea is that if innovations are so easily stolen, no one will bother to invest in it, thus hurting innovation on the whole.

In this case, the current system seems to done a huge U-turn. If Friendster decides to pursue court action, it would probably discourage people from developing new and better social networking sites. This concept doesn’t just apply to this current situation. As a commentor on TechCrunch noted, many other companies have seemingly broad patents in areas that they have done little to innovate in – besides maybe file for a patent on the concept.

I think the real problem is that these patents are being awarded or approved by people or committees that don’t fully understand the situation due to the differences in technology nowadays, and how fast things change in the computer or online world. Witness the recent settlement of the RIM patent debacle, and ask yourself if it seemed fair. Despite what you may think, NTP was fully within their legal right, despite violating the spirit of patent law.

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