Facebook, stop: Amazon has patent for

You better stop what you’re doing right there, Mark Zuckerberg: Somebody else has patented the “social network.”

The United States Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday awarded a patent to Amazon for a “social networking system” that would seem to accomplish the exact same tasks already performed by the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.

Amazon now holds the patent for “A networked computer system [that] provides various services for assisting users in locating, and establishing contact relationships with, other users.”

Groundbreaking, isn’t it?

Amazon’s patented system — which, of course, doesn’t seem to be publicly available — does all the major things Facebook is known for.

“Users can identify other users based on their affiliations with particular schools or other organizations,” according to the patent, and the system “provides a mechanism for a user to selectively establish contact relationships or connections with other users, and to grant permissions for such other users to view personal information of the user.”

Facebook functionality letting users identify friends of friends is covered by Amazon’s patent with “features for enabling users to identify contacts of their respective contacts. … In addition, the system may automatically notify users of personal information updates made by their respective contacts.”

Of course, we can’t give Facebook the credit for inventing social networks. MySpace launched in August 2003, six months before Facebook. There is still controversy over whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea from Harvard classmates, who filed a lawsuit and received a settlement from Zuckerberg.

The technology world has long been full of patent controversy, and the existence of Amazon’s patent on social networking technology doesn’t mean other sites have to shut down. Friendster, after all, patented the social network in 2006 but that hasn’t stopped Facebook and MySpace.

The Amazon patent application was filed on May 27, 2008, more than two years before it was accepted, and lists the social network “inventors” as Brian D. Robertson and Warren W. Adams of Massachusetts.

Roberton and Adams, according to an article on Seattle’s TechFlash, were the founders of PlanetAll, a service Amazon acquired in 1998 and shut down in 2000.

“PlanetAll was a Boston-area startup that was created by a guy who wanted to keep in touch with his college friends,” the TechFlash article notes. “Sound familiar?”

Lots of companies are building social networks these days. Google added Facebook- and Twitter-like capabilities to Gmail, Cisco is releasing social networking software called “Quad” that is designed for internal use by businesses, and now HP says IT pros need their own social network.

Amazon is a consumer-oriented company but has also built services geared toward professional users, particularly in the cloud computing realm. But it’s not clear yet whether this patent is the first step toward Amazon building a Facebook-like service of its own.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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