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Patents Become a 'Social' Problem

Social media -- photos, blogs, networks and tags -- is all about sharing. But social media startups don't want to share their intellectual property. Instead, they're heading to the patent office.

On Aug. 22, Google was awarded a patent for a method of using "editorial opinion" to rank search results. It's just in time: Searchers are starting to turn to each other to find what they're looking for.

The Google patent covers a way of enhancing search services by integrating editorial opinion into the ranking of search results.

The company declined to comment on how it might use this, but it sounds a lot like those ubiquitous "rate this" features that have become de rigueur for social media.

The Internet industry has barely recovered from the surfacing of early e-commerce patents like the "buy it now" button and downloading files. Now, it's off to the races for patents related to social media, the sector of the moment.

Steve Mansfield, CEO of social search provider Prefound, said Google's patent "is a confirmation of sorts that Google has been interested in implementing 'people' into the organization of web results for some time ....

"So, while Google continues to minimize its 'social' search initiatives, this patent shows, at the very least, that 'social' aspects will very likely affect search results organization in the future for Google."

Power of a patent

PreFound, launched in January, lets people tag and share search results, so that others can benefit from their expertise or effort in identifying the best search results.

Members also can create personal pages that organize their saved searches.

The company owns two patents and has an application in process, all covering methods of letting social searchers interact with a hyperlink in a variety of ways without having to open or follow it.

"These patents relate to a core aspect of social search moving forward: user-shared results in the same format are going to be the base of our search experience," said Mansfield.

"All these patents relate to the technology that allows users very easily to gather links."

Mansfield admits that patents don't mean much to end users, but they can be a powerful weapon for a small startup such as his.

"They're used to trying to level the competitive landscape out there and protect some of the technology you're building your business around."

Despite the number of patently ridiculous patents for Internet business processes issued in the early days, Mansfield believes social media startups should continue to seek patent protection for their ideas -- not so they can drive competitors out of business or extort fees, but so they can protect themselves from the big fish.

"It costs too much money and takes too long to get a patent and then hit my knees and pray that somebody else wants to use it and pay me for it," Mansfield said.

"It's really a way to try to secure your business model. It keeps the bigger guys from coming in and saying, 'We like that idea, and we're going to use it. Now, what's your business model?'"

Gold rush

While there may be a land rush now for patents in the social search space, some companies have been staking out this territory for years.

Eurekster, launched in January 2004, provides "community search"; it filters search results based on your social network.

Its portfolio includes exclusive licenses to four patents filed by co-founder and Chief Scientist Grant Ryan while he headed an earlier company, SLI Systems, and six filed on behalf of Eurekster itself.

Ryan shares Mansfield's view on patents. He said Eurekster's intention is not to block competitors from doing business.

"It's more of an insurance policy than anything. If everyone has patents, it's an evening-out process."

For example, he knows that a competitor has patented a different method from Eurekster's of analyzing the clickstream to identify the best search results. "That's one of the nice things about the patent system, it allows for different ways of doing things. It seems the system is about right to me."

Next page: Patenting the big idea.