Facebook infringed on patents held by a Dutch computer programmer who tried to launch a similar site called "Surfbook" more than a decade ago, according to a lawsuit heard by a jury on Wednesday.
The civil trial is underway in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, where social media giant Facebook is being sued by a holding company called Rembrandt Social Media.
The lawsuit alleges that a Dutch computer whiz, Joannes van der Meer, filed for patents in 1998, claiming methods for running a web-based personal diary. The patents were issued in 2001 and 2002, before Facebook debuted in 2003.
But Van der Meer's website, Surfbook, never succeeded. Van der Meer died in 2004.
California-based Facebook says the patents should never have been issued to Van der Meer. The company argues that the ideas and methods in Van der Meer's patents were obvious to people in the trade.
The company fought unsuccessfully for more than a year to keep the case from getting to a jury. It is unusual for patent-infringement lawsuits to make it all the way to a federal jury trial.
Jason Rantanen, a law professor at the University of Iowa who specialises in patent law, said that roughly one per cent of the thousands of infringement lawsuits filed every year end up in that group.
Facebook, a frequent target of patent lawsuits, has often been successful in fending them off. Rantanen said he could find only one other case where Facebook was the primary defendant in a patent-infringement trial that went to a jury. Facebook won that case.
Once a case gets to a jury, though, it becomes unpredictable, Rantanen said. One factor that may work in Facebook's favour is what is known in patent law as "hindsight bias," Rantanen said. Jurors looking back on the rapidly evolving history of social media and Facebook's ubiquitous status may conclude that the development of websites like Facebook was inevitable and that Van der Meer's ideas were not unique.
The plaintiff "has to overcome the tendency to say, 'Hey, it was all going in this direction anyway'," Rantanen said.
An expert testifying for the plaintiff, University of Maryland professor Jennifer Golbeck, said the technical aspect of the infringement centres on a technology used by Facebook called Bigpipe, which speeds the way Web pages are loaded.
More generally, Rembrandt says features on Facebook, including the "like" and "share" buttons, as well as adjustable privacy settings were all anticipated under Van der Meer's patents.
Rembrandt, according to its website, is a company that specialises in filing lawsuits on behalf of patent holders. It has been derided by critics as a "patent troll" that tries to extort hefty settlements from successful companies by digging up obscure patents and claiming infringement.
Neither Rembrandt nor Facebook returned calls for comment.