Facebook Sued for Custom URLs

EveryMD v. Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich (C.D. California)

PatentlyO made me aware of an interesting story this morning.  Their write up is a good summary about the complaint and how the plaintiff is suing the Republican presidential candidates and others who have created business pages on Facebook, Facebook itself, and other business page users for infringing U.S. Patent No. 7,644,122.  What I find interesting is the language of the claim 1.

1. A method for providing individual online presences for a each of a plurality of members of a group of members by an interface server computer comprising the steps of:

maintaining a database comprising information associated with each of said plurality of members at a database system connected to said interface server computer;

allotting individual URLS to each of said plurality of members by associating an individual URL with each individual member of said plurality of members in said database system;

associating an individual home page for each said individual member of said plurality of members with said individual URL allotted to said individual member in said database system, said individual home page comprising information from said database associated with said individual member; a first control for submitting a comment about said individual member; and a second control separate from said first control for sending a message other than said comment to said individual member;

receiving by said interface server an online request for said individual URL from a requesting source;

providing said individual home page by said interface server computer to said requesting source.

All the steps (maintaining, allotting, associating, receiving, and providing) would arguably be done only by Facebook, not the individual users.  The complaint makes no reference to it, but I assume there must be a theory of vicarious liability.  Either the users are liable for contributory infringement, or actively inducing infringement by Facebook.  I don’t see a strong argument for inducement, but contributory infringement could be applied.

One possible argument would be that a request, sent by a user, for an individual URL, is required for Facebook to carry out the second-to-last step of the claim.  Those requests arguably have no substantial non-infringing use because they can only be denied or granted.  Granting the request results in providing the individual homepage (i.e., the last step).

The infringement issues are intriguing, but we may never hear a court rule on them.  The claims are very broad and could be invalidated in a pending inter partes reexamination with Facebook.

Here is a comment I left on the PatentlyO blog:

Sean Connolly said…

I agree that all the elements seem to read only on the entity operating the system, not the individual users. I don’t see where the individual business owners have liability unless the plaintiff has some new theory of contributory infringement. The claim can’t be infringed without the actions of a user.

One element of the independent claim is “receiving by said interface server an online request for said individual URL from a requesting source…” Does a request from a business user for a static URL have a non-infringing use? Would it matter?

Now I’m wondering about other services.  The patent has a priority date of 1999.  Were there any web services before then offering custom URLs?  I’m thinking of early blogging sites, bulletin boards, and other such services.  Does a “individual URL” include any static URL?  Does the broadest reasonable reading of claim 1 cover the simple act of registering a domain name?


Amazing Customer Service From Apple

This doesn’t necessarily fit with the theme of this blog, but when a company treats me this well, I feel compelled to talk about it.

I purchased a used 2008 MacBook Air a year and a half ago. The machine had Apple Care, Apple’s transferable extended warranty. My wife was using it and unfortunately the hard disk had to be replaced.  Apple handled the repair quickly.  However, it happened again, this time after the expiration of the Apple Care plan.  Apple again repaired the machine quickly, but we were nervous about this becoming a recurring issue.

The third time the machine started to act up, my wife took it into the local Apple Store. The manager looked at the service history and surmised that the problem would likely keep repeating itself. He gave us a choice: either repair

The new MacBook Air in the home office

the machine for a third time in a year, or he would replace it with another 13 inch MacBook Air.  Of course, a new (mid 2011) MacBook Air is a bit of an upgrade.  Okay, it’s a huge upgrade. I no longer even have a hard disk since this machine has an SSD.  I am also now running Lion instead of Snow Leopard.

Granted, Apple may be saving itself more headaches with continued repairs, but this went beyond what I would have expected.  My next purchase will be an Apple Care plan for this notebook.

Pinterest and Copyright Infringement

Pinterest has a remarkable story.  They’ve grown faster than even they could have hoped and now have millions of users “pinning” their favorite things from the web onto the users’ boards.

Of course, some brands love the grassroots advertising this provides, and many content providers appreciate the exposure.  In many cases Pinterest and other social media sites are driving more traffic to sites than search engines.  That is all well and good until someone doesn’t want their content copied and pinned.

Enter Pinterest and its response to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  The DMCA can make ISPs and online publishers liable for copyright infringement by their users, unless they take certain actions to fall within the safe harbor provisions.  Pinterest does this and even blogged about it this week.

I think Pinterest’s strategy of providing code for a meta tag that will prevent pinning of content from a page having that tag (an opt-out) is a bit short sighted.  But what I really found interesting were the comments from the content providers.

Now excuse me while I go find a plugin for WordPress so this post can be pinned.

Patenting on the Side

There are some things inventors should know about who owns their ideas.  First, the patent statute and the Constitution of the United States vests ownership of patents in the inventors as an initial matter.  After that, ownership can be transferred like any other property right.

Generally, it is straight forward if the inventor has a written agreement to assign the invention, such as in an employment agreement of consulting contract.  In some situations, an inventor may have an obligation to transfer ownership to their employer, client, or customer depending on a number of factors even if there is no provision in a written contract.  Some questions to think about are:

Was the inventor hired for his inventing skills?  There is a difference between an engineer hired to develop new products and an employee not hired for his or her technical skills.

Did the inventor use the other parties resources to develop the invention?  This could include using employer owned computer equipment and software as opposed to using your home computer.

Does the invention relate to the other parties business?  There could be different outcomes if an automotive engineer invents a new engine air intake valve, or instead, a new and better mousetrap.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I am in no way presenting a journal article type review of the law.  These are just some indications that may be helpful to a non-lawyer inventor.

In my case, the invention is unrelated to my employer’s business.  It actually relates to a personal hobby.  No employer resources were used in it’s development, and I think it’s hard to argue attorneys, though hired for their creative and critical thinking skills, are hired to invent.  The downside to that is I can’t really expect to be reimbursed for filing fees.  Oh well, it’s a small price to pay for the best thing since sliced bread.

Patenting for Myself

Over the years I’ve had some ideas that I could have filed patent applications on, but I never did. One of these ideas showed up in a product later, and when I checked the filing dates of the patent listed on the product package, it was about six months after I had first thought of the idea. Thankfully I am not flexible enough to do much damage when kicking myself.

I recently had another idea, and will be filing an application. I’ll have to piece enough time to prepare it in my spare time, so this may take a little while. I will disclose it here when the application publishes. I don’t know if it will be commercially successful, but I think the ensuing process will be interesting to write about.

I will provide updates as the application progresses and think this could provide a series of posts that, in sum, will give other inventors and idea of how the process works.