A number of social networks may be in a significant amount of trouble. Facebook has managed to patent the idea of "dynamically providing a news feed about a user of a social network."
This is no rumor or joke; the paperwork is all in order. Facebook filed for what the United States Patent and Trademark Office has designated patent number 7,669,123 in August of 2006, and Mark Zuckerberg's name appears eight times on the official document.
As for what, exactly, the patent covers, the abstract describes it as "[a] method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment . . . . The method includes generating news items regarding activities associated with a user of a social network environment and attaching an informational link associated with at least one of the activities, to at least one of the news items, as well as limiting access to the news items to a predetermined set of viewers and assigning an order to the news items."
So it's possible that we'll see Facebook sue every competitor with anything resembling a news feed. These theoretical lawsuits could turn out in its favor, too.
There are a few reasons that Facebook might not get overly aggressive, though. First is the simple fact that enforcing this patent and attacking the rest of the social media industry would upset people. No company enjoys bad PR and protests.
Second, Facebook has been on something of an open source kick in recent months, and unleashing the lawyers would represent a significant turnaround.
Finally, it's necessary to consider what Nick O'Neill, who first came across the patent, wrote: "It appears that this patent surrounds implicit actions. This means status updates, which is what Twitter is based on, are not part of this patent. Instead, this is about stories about the actions of a user's friends. While still significant, the implications for competing social networks may be less substantial."