Facebook Being Sued For The Like Button: Can An Expression Of Emotion Be Patented?

Could Maverick sue Facebook for using the thumbs up?
Could Maverick sue Facebook for using the thumbs up?

It hardly seems that a week can go by in the tech world without someone laying claim to a patent, starting months – if not years – of litigation. If Samsung and Apple aren’t at each other’s throats about something, there’s usually someone trying to argue that they are entitled to a slice of Zuckerberg’s money pie.

Some however, are more successful than others. The Winklevoss twins walked away with a cool $65m worth of cash and stock following their assertion that they were instrumental in coming up with Facebook, whereas the likes of Paul Ceglia was laughed out of court after being found to have forged and modified contracts between himself and Mark Zuckerberg.

But within the last week a new case has surfaced that sees one of the social network’s most used features at the centre of a paternity row. Facebook is being sued for its use of the Like button, which it is claimed was patented by Dutch programmer Joannes Jozef Everardus van Der Meer in 1998 as a functionality of Surfbook.

Van Der Meer’s creation in the late 90s was a social diary that allowed users to “like” each other’s content, however he has since died. The patent is now held by Rembrandt Social Media LP, who is seeking legal action against Facebook, as well as the company AddThis for using the patents without permission.

The law suit also says that Facebook is fully aware of the patents, and has in fact referenced them when filing its own application to patent some of its own social networking technologies.

However, there is a fair amount of debate as to whether a Like button can be patented. The technology itself is relatively basic and common – think how many times you click ‘OK’, or ‘Submit’ on any given day – but can you patent an expression of emotion?

Perhaps the mechanism is what is being contested here, but it still seems rather flimsy. So many websites have the ability to ‘like’ content independently of Facebook. A lot of the sentiment around this story seems to be that the line of what can and can’t be patented has been crossed, so I’ll leave you with this comment from one Mashable user that tickled me:

I’m going to sue Maverick and Iceman from Top Gun for using the thumbs up gesture. Clearly, this was not theirs originally…