Sagging social network Friendster was awarded a patent on some pretty fundamental qualities of online social networking late last month. The patent covers the determining and display of relationships between individuals who have entered personal information into a social network; specifically, determining who is in your circle of friends and who isn’t. The patent application was filed just over three years ago – what a great example of the dangers of a behind-the-times US Patent and Trademark Office. New technologies in many fields pose a real problem when the USPTO tries to find examiners and infrastructure capable of knowing what existing practices are, evaluating non-obviousness, etc.
Friendster has a number of prominent investors and Kleiner Perkins put in additional funds this February. CNN’s The Browser blog writes today that “Suing rivals for patent infringement is no way to make friends — but it is a way to make money.” When asked whether licenses or lawsuits were likely, Friendster President Kent Lindstrom told RedHerring.com, “it’s way too early to say…We’ll do what we can to protect our intellectual property.”
If this patent survives and is considered relevant to what’s now a huge sector of the online world, I expect that the chorus of voices demanding patent reform will grow much louder. It’s hard to imagine, though, what would have happened if this patent had been granted in a timely fashion. Advocates of a strong patent system often argue that unless innovations are given patent protection, no one will invest in innovating. Clearly that argument doesn’t hold up in this case.