Facebook’s Patent Infringement Case Goes to Trial

While Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. are still trying to end their three-year legal fight over smart-phone technology, Facebook is in the news again, this time for their current patent infringement case.  In a story by Mathew Barakat at  <a href=”http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/trial-underway-patent-case-facebook-24093943″>ABC News Online</a> it’s been reported that the trial is underway in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA.  Facebook allegedly infringed on patents held by a Dutch computer programmer who tried to launch a similar site called Surfbook over 10 years ago.    

The programmer is Johannes Van Der Meer, who allegedly filed for patents in 1998, for technical ideas and methods used for his web-based personal diary.  The patents were issued in 2001 and 2002, which was well before Facebook debuted in 2003.  The strange twist, and the biggest problem, is that Van Der Meer’s website, Surfbook, never launched because he died in 2004.  Because of this, Facebook is being sued by a holding company called Rembrandt Social Media on Van Der Meer’s behalf.

For their part, Facebook—based in Menlo Park, California—states that the patents issued should never have been awarded to Van Der Meer because the methods and ideas detailed in Van Der Meer’s patents were “obvious to anyone in the trade”.

According to the ABC News article, even though it is not common for patent-infringement lawsuits to make it to a federal jury trial, Jason Rantanen—a law professor at the University of Iowa, and a specialist in patent law—said that “roughly one percent of the thousands of infringement lawsuits filed every year end up in that group.”  Facebook had continued to fight unsuccessfully for over a year, but will now end up taking the fight to a jury.

Bringing a lawsuit before a jury is definitely not desirable.  Facebook, during its history, has been a frequent target for lawsuits but usually comes out on top.  According to Rantanen, there was only one other case of patent-infringement in which Facebook went to jury-trial as defendant.  They won that case also, but unfortunately when dealing with 7 random strangers, there is no real way to guarantee the outcome.

Facebook’s claim that “anyone in the trade” would have been aware of Van Der Meer’s methods, may be a way of demonstrating that social media websites like Facebook were evolving so fast that overlapping ideas were inevitable, and that the ideas and methods that Van Der Meer patented were not actually unique.  In patent law this is known as hindsight bias and may be Facebook’s saving grace in this trial.  As noted by Rantanen in the ABC news story, “The plaintiff has to overcome the tendency to say, Hey, it was all going in this direction anyway.” 

The technical aspect of the case—according to University of Maryland professor Jennifer Golbeck, who is an expert witness for the plaintiff—centers  on a technology used by Facebook called Bigpipe.  It deals with increasing the speed in which Web pages are loaded, but it’s the more general features including the “like” and “share” buttons, and the adjustable privacy settings that were reportedly anticipated under Van Der Meer’s original patents—and now a focus of the lawsuit. 

The scene in the courtroom has been painted quite vividly—from the stacks of “three-ring binders stuffed with legal documents” on the judge’s desk to the jury of four women and three men, and the teams of top lawyers on both sides.  Rembrandt, who specializes in filing lawsuits on behalf of patent holders, still maintains that the personal web page diary that Johannes Van Der Meer had invented years before bears a “remarkable resemblance, both in terms of its functionality and technical implementation” to Facebook and will demonstrate this in court.  If Facebook loses the case, they may face a judgment that could be in the millions of dollars.



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