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Facebook faces a new lawsuit on patent infringement - but could it not apply to ALL social networking sites? (and some background on iKimbo)

Facebook gets sued for patent infringement but is this perhaps just the latest case of intellectual property holding companies going after likely targets?  And will they now go after most social networking services? 

Yesterday, TechCrunch reported that a "venture capital management firm", Cross Atlantic Partners, had sued Facebook for infringing on patent 6,519,629 for a "System for creating a community of users with common interests to interact in".  The comments to the TechCrunch article make for interesting reading, as the Internet community starts to do what it does best, which is to slice and dice things like this and provide links and commentary.

Reading the patent, either at the USPTO site or over at Google Patents, is quite instructive.  It's quite a lengthy document with 15 pages of accompanying flow charts.  It's also written in that nice vague language that can apply to many things.  Here's a taste from the section about "Inviting Other Users":

FIG. 3 is a flow-chart which illustrates inviting other users to participate in and/or join a community according to an embodiment of the invention. At step 250, a user activates an invite function. At step 252, a user's communication address book is accessed and a list of communication addresses is presented. A user selects communication addresses and creates a personal invitation at step 254, and sends communication addresses and personal invitations to central controller module 115 at step 256. At step 257, the contents and configuration of an invitation application are determined, and at step 258, central controller module 115 creates an invitation application. At step 260, central controller module 115 sends an invitation application to the communication addresses. An invited user receives the invitation application and launches it at step 262. The executable component prompts an invited user to provide acceptance information at step 264. At step 266, the acceptance information is sent to central controller module 115. Central controller module 115 approves the acceptance and transmits a community client application at step 268, and launches the community client application at step 270. The method of FIG. 3 will now be described in more detail.

Follow all that?  On one level, you could see the rough approximation of Facebook's invitation process.  On the other hand, Facebook's lawyers will probably pick apart things like the fact that it speaks about an "invitation application".  Regardless, the language will certainly ensure plenty of work for lawyers on all sides.

It appears the patent was filed back in October 2001 by a since-deceased startup called iKimbo. Taking a tour of iKimbo through the WayBack machine is useful.  In the first instance archived in March 2000, they had just received seed capital and said this on their website:

iKimbo is creating a revolutionary new approach to online communities.  Very soon, anybody with an Internet connection will be able to quickly and easily create a rich Internet e-commerce community for free. 

By May 2001 they were focused more on secure instant messaging (and had also changed from "iKimbo" to "Ikimbo"):

Ikimbo provides instant communication for the enterprise. Ikimbo's Ominprise products offer a secure, reliable and scalable instance communications platform, providing industrial-strength instant-messaging, secure file sharing and wireless access.

ComputerWorld also discussed Ikimbo's tools in "Startup Pushes Instant Collaboration" (Oct 2001) and mentions consulting giant Deloitte & Touche as a prime customer.  By May 2002, though, it seems things weren't going so well and the company cut it's staff in half and replaced its CEO.  It appears the company then created a product called "AGENDA" which interacted with Lotus Sametime and Microsoft products.  The July 26, 2004 archive of the web site, the last one available from the WayBack Machine, shows a company that had recently been recognized by Lotus Advisor Magazine and had presented their product in Microsoft's booth at the "Instant Messaging Planet 2004" show in Boston. The WayBack Machine doesn't show all the graphics, but it would seem the shift was toward "real-time resolution of time-critical events".

However, on July 21, 2004, Stowe Boyd posted the news that "Ikimbo is Closing Down" and mentions his own role with the company, as well as the name of yet another CEO.

Meanwhile in February 2003 Ikimbo/iKimbo was awarded this patent with the abstract:

An Information and Application Distribution System (IADS) is disclosed. The IADS operates, in one embodiment, to distribute, initiate and allow interaction and communication within like-minded communities. Application distribution occurs through the transmission and receipt of an "invitation application" which contains both a message component and an executable component to enable multiple users to connect within a specific community. The application object includes functionality which allows the user's local computer to automatically set up a user interface to connect with a central controller which facilitates interaction and introduction between and among users.

And somewhere in the trail of corporate disintegration, the intellectual property rights wound up in the hands of this Cross Atlantic Partners who have evidently decided that they have a case in suing Facebook. (As Dean Evans writes in Tech.co.uk yesterday, having a $6 billion valuation makes you a pretty obvious target for this type of lawsuit.)

As commenters to the TechCrunch article indicate, I have to believe that there is sufficient prior art out there to ultimately dismiss this patent.  I'm not a patent attorney and I haven't slogged through the whole document, but what I do read sounds a lot like many of the different online forums and communities that I participated in during the 1990's.  The question is really whether or not such prior art can be proven (and can be proven to be different from the nuances of the patent) and also whether Facebook will bother to fight it or simply settle to get rid of the annoyance of the suit.

The question, of course, is that if this should go ahead and, by some miracle, Cross Atlantic Partners wins (or even if they settle), would it not be obvious to go after all the other social networking sites as well?  Almost all the social network-du-jour sites that are popping up operate in a very similar fashion to Facebook with regard to invitations, communities, etc.  For that matter, so does Orkut, owned by giant Google (who has lots of lawyers).

We'll see.   In the meantime, it seems like this lawsuit would fit in well with the patent/IPR discussions over at a site like GrokLaw or somewhere similar.

Interesting times...

P.S. A tip of the hat to Judy Gombita for circulating the link to an email list, which is how I first learned of the issue.

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