Who owns location: Facebook or Google?

Ronny Kerr · October 7, 2010 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/126e

Two patents two years apart describe similar location-based features, but Google got there first

Facebook PlacesThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) handed Facebook a powerful weapon in the location wars Wednesday: a hugely broad patent for Systems and methods for automatically locating web-based social network members that backs up the relatively recently launched geo-tagging service Facebook Places. Facebook first filed for the patent in 2007.

Most of Places’ predecessors, including Foursquare, Gowalla, Google Latitude, and countless other geo-social discovery and location-based services, have seriously geared up in the past couple years, timed perfectly to meet the growing droves of smartphone users with GPS connectivity.

One of the more popular location networks, Foursquare, announced its 200 millionth check-in earlier this week. It took over a year to reach one million check-ins but only two months to double that milestone, proof enough that many users are rapidly adopting Foursquare as a daily part of their routine.

Some in the blogosphere feared, however, that Facebook could wield its newly granted patent to shut down these other location services.

Google LatitudeThe only problem is that Google got the location patent first.

According to a patent document filed on May 11, 2005 (nearly two years before Facebook filed) and issued September 22, 2009, the USPTO had already granted Google a patent for Location-based social software for mobile devices.

Furthermore, Google’s patent lists Dennis P. Crowley, founder of Foursquare, and Alexander M. Rainert, head of product, as the patent’s inventors. In fact, Crowley and Rainert had created a Foursquare-like service in 2000 called Dodgeball, which sold to Google in 2005 and later became Latitude, Google-branded social location software.

That means, a full two years before Facebook even filed a patent for location, Crowley and Rainert had already founded a location-based service, developed it for five years, and sold it.

Knowing all this, what sway could Facebook’s latest patent really have?

Perhaps the social network does not have any plans to try shutting out the smaller location startups and only filed for the patent to defend themselves against potential suits brought against them. Any market Facebook enters automatically becomes endangered because a 500 million user strong network is hard to compete with. The company could have many enemies in the location space.

It seems then that Facebook’s patent might serve as a weapon of defense as opposed to a weapon of attack.

Google patentThe abstract from Google’s (2005) patent:

A method of establishing connection between users of mobile devices includes receiving at a computer a location of a first user from a first mobile device, receiving from a second mobile device a location of a second user having an acquaintance relationship to the first user, and sending a message to the first mobile device based on the proximity of the first user to the second user.

The abstract from Facebook’s (2007) patent:

Systems and methods for automatically locating web-based social network members are provided. According to one embodiment, contact content including an associated GPS identifier and status for web-based social network members located at or near the same location automatically appears on a GPS-enabled device. A further exemplary system includes a GPS-enabled device configured to receive a GPS identifier and a status representing a location and a current state for a web-based social network member, a processing module that associates the received GPS-identifier and the received status, and a communications module that sends the associated GPS-identifier and status to a server comprising a web-based social network database. Contact content in a web-based social network database record in the web-based social network database is updated to include the associated GPS identifier and status for the web-based social network member.

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