Software Patent of the Week: Six Degrees of Separation

by on July 28, 2006 · 2 comments

Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Friendster has been granted a patent on social networking software. (Not surprisingly, Techdirt beat the Journal by three weeks) The patent in question is # 7,069,308, “System, method and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks.” Here’s a sample from the “BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION”:

An invitation system allows users to invite friends or acquaintances to join the system. Invitations may be sent, for example, by e-mail. The invited friend or acquaintance may accept the invitation, and then become a user of the system, as a `friend` of the inviting user. The new user is prompted to provide descriptive data and the relationship data for friends or acquaintances who they would like to join the system. It is a unique and important feature of the invention that the invitation system (as well as related communication systems within the invention) allows two users to confirm that they are “friends”, and therefore become designated as such in the system.

Users in the system further have the ability to provide information about one another. For example, one user might write a positive comment about a second user’s personality. In one implementation, the second user may accept or reject display of the comment. Further, in this implementation, any other users who are connected to the second user through any number of acquaintance pathways may see the comment as part of the “descriptive data” about the second user.

It looks like they wrote up a description of how their web site works, and then they hired a lawyer to translate it into patent-speak. And it gets better! When you get down to the “DETAILED DESCRIPTION,” you get mind-blowing innovation like this:

The apparatus 110 is connected to the Internet 112 through a router 114 and a switch 116. As is well known in the relevant art(s), routers forward packets between networks. The router 114 forwards information packets between the apparatus 110 and devices 106 & 108 over the Internet 112. A load balancer 118 balances the traffic load across multiple mirrored servers 120, 122, 124, and a firewall 128 provides protection from unauthorized access to the apparatus 110. The switch 116 may act as a gatekeeper to and from the Internet 112.

In short an absolutely generic description of a typical web server configuration. It’s actually pretty funny that they consider their server setup part of their “invention” given that Friendster’s slower-than-molases performance was one of the reasons it got overtaken by Orkut, Facebook, and My Space.

The patent goes on in that vein for pages and pages. I have to admit I didn’t read it all carefully, but skimming it I didn’t see anything that wouldn’t be obvious to someone skilled in the art of setting up web servers.

I feel like there must be something about patent law that I’m missing. If a software firms obtains a patent like this that just describes all aspects of its product in gory detail, how does one determine what’s covered by the patent? Does it only cover products that have all the described characteristics? Does it cover any product that has any of the characteristics? Or is there some kind of threshold rule where your product has to have, say, 60 percent of the characteristics described?

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