You may recall a few years ago that many people were up in arms over the ridiculousness of Friendster, the social network that kicked off the social networking craze (though it was hardly the first in the space), which got a patent
) on the basics of social networking (claiming "a system and method for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks"). Lots of people pointed out the rather ridiculous amount of prior art on this patent, and feared that Friendster (by then very much an also-ran in the social networking world) was about to turn patent troll. Since then, the company has picked up a few more patents
on some other aspects of social networking as well.
So, we were a bit surprised to see lots of folks sending over the news (first highlighted at Slashdot
), that Amazon has been awarded a patent, 7,739,139
, on a "Social networking system."
Even though it was only filed in 2008, that's not actually the relevant date. It's a continuation patent -- a dreadfully bad part of the patent system that is regularly abused
to create "submarine" patents. While patent system defenders will deny this, the continuation process is regularly used to adjust what a patent covers over time, to make sure that it really covers more modern inventions than when it was originally filed. The Patent Office tried to stop this abuse by limiting
continuations a few years ago, but a court eventually told them the USPTO couldn't
actually do that. In this case, this patent isn't just a continuation patent, it's a continuation patent of a continuation patent of a continuation patent of an original patent filed back in 1997.
And, because of that, we get patents like this one. Since the priority date in November of 1997, all the fancy social networking stuff actually invented elsewhere doesn't count as prior art, but given how many such systems were built between now and then, it's hard to see how the specific claims in this patent could possibly pass the obviousness test. Tons of companies came up with identical systems over the years, suggesting that it was clearly the next obvious progression in this area.