Patent Filing Suggests Amazon Was Facebook Before Facebook

On Tuesday (June 15), Amazon was issued a patent for a "social-networking system" that sounds remarkably like a description of Facebook. How could Amazon, which filed its application for that patent in 2008, claim rights for a social-networking site after Facebook had been running for years? It turns out that Amazon bought a social-networking company of its own in 1998--five years before Mark Zuckerberg tells audiences he came up with the idea for Facebook.

Does this mean E-tailing giant Amazon is about to try taking down social-networking goliath Facebook? Probably not. Amazon and Facebook have been collaborating for years. In fact, Amazon writes Facebook apps to drive Facebook traffic to Amazon. It also just updated its Kindle e-book reader so users can send favorite passages to their Facebook friends.

That suggests Amazon is more likely to "friend" Facebook with a patent cross-licensing agreement than slap it with a lawsuit.

The Amazon patent, #7,739,139, is based on technology from an early social-networking company called PlanetAll, which Amazon bought in 1998 and shut down in 2000. Though Amazon applied for the patent in 2008, the filing is actually a continuation of a PlanetAll patent application filed in 1997 and granted in 2001. That's why Facebook, which was launched in 2004, might face infringement claims from a patent that wasn't filed until four years later.

But that's not likely. The days are gone when Amazon was likely to swing its "one-click" E-tailing patent like a club at Barnes & Noble. In recent years, Amazon has cross-licensed its patents with IBM (in the wake of a legal dustup over E-Commerce patents) and Microsoft (to keep the Kindle out of IP trouble). Amazon isn't likely to threaten a steady stream of business headed its way from Facebook.

Aside from being good business, swapping patents with Facebook would give Amazon access to Facebook's own patents, including one that Facebook was granted in February for alerts in a newsfeed in a social-networking site. Facebook, in turn, could gain the use of that notorious "one-click" patent, which the U.S. Patent Office spent four years re-examining before approving it again in March.

Of course, all this may soon be moot. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule any week now on a case known as In re Bilski, and that ruling could outlaw many software and business-process patents. If that happens, any legal threats over patents would be pointless.

That's an even better reason for Amazon and Facebook to stay friends.