Feb. 8, 2013 at 5:04 PM ET
A patent firm has filed a lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of a deceased computer scientist who might have dreamed up the famous "like" button before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even got his start.
The suit revolves around two patents held by the family of Joannes Jozef Everardus Van Der Meer, who died in June, 2004, just months after Facebook's Harvard debut.
According to the complaint, on Sept. 1, 1998, Van Der Meer filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a "Web page diary" which allows users to "collect personal information and third-party content, organize the information chronologically on a personalized Web page, and share the information with a selected group of people, such as the end user's friends, through the use of user-settable privacy levels."
Sounds vaguely familiar, no? Hello, Timeline.
Van Der Meer's second patent application describes a method of automatically transferring content from a website to a user's personal "Web page diary" with a click, allowing people to "collect interesting content as they browsed the Web."
Rembrandt — the company that represents independent inventors and patent holders such as the family of the deceased programmer — suggests that the second patent outlines the functionality of the Facebook "Like" button. You click it, content of some sort is thrown onto your Facebook Timeline. Or your "Web page diary." Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
The first patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,415,316) was issued on July 2, 2002 and the second patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,289,362) was issued on Sept. 11, 2001. While the patents were pending (and after they were issued), Van Der Meer attempted to "commercialize his inventions." He formed a company and bought a domain, surfbook.com, to launch a "pilot system that utilized some of the innovations described in his patents." He died before seeing his vision through, however.
The odd similarities between Van Der Meer's domain of choice and Facebook's aside, his patents sound as if they could be applied to nearly any of today's social networks. Nonetheless, legal action is currently only being pursued against Facebook and AddThis, a company which "acts like an enhanced version of the Facebook transfer script," according to Rembrandt's complaint, thereby allegedly infringing on U.S. Patent No. 6,289,362 as well.
"We're not currently pursuing claims against anyone else," Thomas Melsheimer, one of the lawyers representing Rembrandt, told NBC News, "but that doesn't mean that won't happen." (One might assume that Facebook was singled out because one of its patents cites one of Van Der Meer's, implying that the company was aware of it.)
Rembrandt is seeking "no less than a reasonable royalty" for the alleged patent infringement. It's tough to guess what this might amount to, but Ars Technica's Joe Mullin does point out that Rembrandt has managed to successfully "wrest a $41 million verdict from contact-lens maker Ciba Vision in 2008" while working with a husband-wife inventor team who developed what may have set the groundwork for the extended wear contacts many of us use.
Additionally, as Melsheimer pointed out to NBC News, the company representing the case, Fish & Richardson, is "one of the largest firms practicing intellectual property" in the U.S. (The firm once beat Amazon in court, when representing an independent feminist bookstore in an infringement case.)
Get the popcorn ready, folks. I have a feeling we'll be hearing about this case for a while.
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