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Time Running Out for Facebook's Timeline?

By Rich Duprey - Apr 4, 2013 at 6:30PM

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Social network can't stop lawsuit from advancing.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap, or in modern parlance, "What goes around, comes around."

Facebook (FB 1.18%) finds itself on the receiving end of absurdity, having to defend itself from a lawsuit over its use of the word "timeline" from a company of the same name that launched in 2009 a service allowing users to track historical events and share knowledge and experiences from their personal lives. Timeline, of course, was a new feature unveiled late last year that tracked an individual's activity on the site in chronological order.

Patently absurd
On the surface you might feel the social networking site shouldn't be liable for such a commonly used word -- and that was essentially its defense -- but when you realize that it has previously trademarked or tried to trademark everyday words like "like," "poke," "wall," "face," and even "book," you get the sense it's getting a taste of karma.

Timelines, the company taking on Facebook, has just 1,200 registered users compared to the 1 billion the social network boasts, but size is no matter when it comes to who has rights to what, and in a ruling handed down on April 1, a judge overseeing the lawsuit said the upstart can move forward. 

The legal action was filed just before Facebook started the new feature, and it was pointed out that finding Timeline's Facebook page became difficult after it launched because the social network started redirecting searches for the term to its own service. The judge acknowledged there are generic uses of the word, but also pointed out that when the U.S. patent office granted Timelines its trademark, it was well aware of them but found it was using the word in a non-generic manner.

Wall of worry
Of course, all this doesn't mean Facebook won't prevail when the case goes before a jury, but  even the social network's own survey it submitted to the court suggests it won't be a slam dunk. Among people 14 and older, more than two-thirds thought "timeline" was generic, while 24% thought it referred to a brand name. It underscores the need for patent reform in this country. Like's one-click checkout patent and MercExchange's wrangling $35 million out of eBay for its "Buy It Now" feature, such obvious grants by the patent office need to be seriously reconsidered. 

Yet I'm sure there's no irony that upon visiting Timelines' home page you find a prominently displayed a link calling for you to find it on Facebook. Only if you can find it, though.


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