Who would have guessed that the biggest online retailer in the world is actually the inventor of social networks.
Online commerce company Amazon.com (Stock Quote: AMZN) was awarded a patent for “social networking systems” by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which might make some other social networks (cough…Facebook) squirm.
Amazon now has the 7,739,139 patent on “a networked computer system [that] provides various services for assisting users in locating, and establishing contact relationships with other users. For example, in one embodiment, users can identify other users based on their affiliations with particular schools or other organizations.”
The key to understanding this abstract concept is to imagine the aforementioned Facebook… because that’s basically what they are describing. After all, as the patent goes on to say, “the system also provides a mechanism for a user to selectively establish contact relationships or connections with other users, and to grant permissions for such other users to view personal information of the user. The system may also include features for enabling users to identify contacts of their respective contacts. In addition, the system may automatically notify users of personal information updates made by their respective contacts.” But why would Amazon.com, an online commerce site, want a patent that seemingly describes Facebook?
Amazon’s claim to the social networking system is based on its 1998 purchase of PlanetAll, a social networking site launched it 1997 that is considered the precursor to today’s popular social media platforms. Back then, Amazon paid $90 million to Brian Robertson and Warren Adams (who are listed on the newly-issued patent as inventors) for the social network, which was started because, well, coincidentally, Robertson and Adams wanted to stay in touch with their college friends.
“PlanetAll is the most innovative use of the Internet I've seen," Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said at the time of the acquisition in a press release. "It's simply a breakthrough in doing something as fundamental and important as staying in touch. “
But, back then, the world wasn’t looking to stay in touch via a social network and Amazon pulled the plug on PlanetAll two years after the acquisition. It was only in 2008, after Friendster and Facebook had proven popularity and profit, that the online retailer refiled its claim on the burgeoning industry. Their newly-issued patent is actually a continuation of the original filed for PlanetAll by Robertson and Adams in 1997.
“This is a great example of the business of patents,” patent attorney Nancy J. Flint explains to MainStreet. “Amazon Technologies kepts this ‘family’ of patents ‘alive’ since 1997. So long as there was a patent application in this ‘family’ still pending, Amazon was able to draft claims that covered any business that popped up after 1997 and became popular, like Facebook or Friendster.”
As the Tech Observersuggests, the new patent may not be an attempt to start trouble for existing social networks, but to “correct a missed opportunity.” In other words, Amazon could intend to use the patent defensively if it decided to launch its own social network. However, according to Flint, it would be possible for Amazon to sue a site like Facebook patent infringement.
“I have no idea whether there will be a legal fight here, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Flint says. “There have been many instances over the years of the patent holder going after the successful business.” Flint cites the intermittent windshield wiper inventor Robert Kearns’ case against Ford and Chrysler, MercExchange’s case against eBay and U.S-based company NTP’s case against Canadian blackberry developer Research in Motion.
Of course, Amazon itself has a history of using its procured patents against competitors. Back in 1999, the Web site filed a patent infringement law suit against Barnes and Nobles when the book retailer introduced a “one-click” online ordering option called Express Lane. Amazon, at the time, has a patent for “one-click” buying. A judge ordered Barnes and Nobles to discontinue its web feature until the two retailers ultimately settled the case, though the exact terms were never disclosed.
In October 2007, Amazon’s one-click patent was rescinded after the patent office found that “prior art” or pre-existing technology negated a claim of originality (and, consequently, the existence of a patent).
Interestingly, due to its track record, Amazon might be less inclined to use its new patent against pre-existing social media sites. Following the Barnes and Noble law suit, the Free Software foundation urged a boycott of the Amazon site that wasn’t formally lifted until September 2002.
Furthermore, what complicates potential litigation is that Amazon’s not the first Web site to try to “own” a piece of social media. Back in February, Facebook received a patent for its newsfeed, which is now defined as “a system, method and computer program for generating a social timeline is provided. “
You can read the rest of that patent here, but it essentially implies that Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg invented telling your friends what you’re up to online – something that might scare Twitter.
Facebook refused to comment on whether or not it planned to use the patent against potential competitors. Instead, the social media giant acted as if it filed the patent out of respect for its feature.
“The launch of News Feed in 2006 was a pivotal moment in Facebook’s history and changed the way millions of people consumed and discovered information on the site,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an e-mail to Wired. “We’re humbled by the growth and adoption of News Feed over time and pleased with being awarded the patent.”
Additionally, way back in 2006, Friendster patented “social networking,” which credits founder Jonathan Abrams with inventing “a system, method and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks.”
However, Flint points out that Amazon’s patent, which pre-dates all patents obtained by Facebook and Friendster, trumps the others in existence.
“The U.S. patent system gives patent rights to the first person to invent so Amazon Technologies have priority over Friendster for whatever was disclosed in the Amazon technologies application,” she said. “Facebook and Friendster weren’t in existence until sometime after 2000. They would have to find things that existed before 1997 to attack this patent.”
To date, no social media platform or online commerce site has sued over infringements on these patents. However, those of you who may be confused can take solace in the fact that at least we all know who invented the Internet.
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