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Facebook Lands Patent for News Feed

Social networking giant Facebook has won a patent for its news feed feature, locking in the intellectual property rights to one of its most popular features.

The patent describes "a method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment," detailing the flow and filtering of information about people's activities across the site.

"The method includes generating news items regarding activities associated with a user of a social network environment and attaching an informational link associated with at least one of the activities, to at least one of the news items, as well as limiting access to the news items to a predetermined set of viewers and assigning an order to the news items," the company wrote in its patent application. "The method further may further include displaying the news items in the assigned order to at least one viewing user of the predetermined set of viewers and dynamically limiting the number of news items displayed."

Facebook submitted its application for the patent in August 2006, three weeks before it took the news feed feature live on the site. The automatic syndication of people's activities sparked an immediate protest from the site's users, prompting Facebook to add more privacy controls in what would become a familiar pattern as the company has the company has frequently tested the bounds of how much information people are willing to share online.

But the controversy over the news feed quickly faded, and the feature has since become one of the site's most essential elements. It has also been widely imitated on other social sites, with rival MySpace, for instance, rolling out its own version of a news feed more than a year after Facebook's.

The patent would grant Facebook the rights to pursue action against other Web sites that include an algorithm-driven mechanism for sharing and distributing information, which has lit up the Internet with speculation about the potential implications for social sites with similar features such as MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter.

A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on how Facebook plans to act on its new patent, telling InternetNews.com in an e-mailed statement:

"The launch of News Feed in 2006 was a pivotal moment in Facebook's history and changed the way millions of people consumed and discovered information on the site. We're humbled by the growth and adoption of News Feed over time and pleased with being awarded the patent."

The patent describes the method Facebook uses to gather and automatically publish people's activities, such as status updates or the addition of new photos, to their feeds, and details the filtering mechanisms by which users can limit who sees their information. Those types of activity streams have become central features of numerous social sites across the Web.

The patent names Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, along with seven other company employees, as the inventors of the news feed.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.