Did Facebook poach its iconic “like” button? That’s the heart of a case being brought to court on behalf of deceased Dutch programmer Joannes Jozef Everardus Van Der Meer.
The key argument is a simple matter of timeline. (No pun intended.) Six years before his death in 2004, Van Der Meer patented the “like” button for his budding social diary, Surfbook. Facebook, however, didn’t exist in 1998. Its early beginnings go back to 2003, when Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemash launched on Harvard campus and evolved into Facebook in 2004. And so logically, the case alleges the company couldn’t have originated the social voting/approval mechanism, yet it has never paid anything to Van Der Meer, his estate or subsequent patent holders.
This may not come as any surprise to people familiar with Zuckerberg’s past antics. (And who isn’t, thanks to the The Social Network?) In creating Facemash, Zuckerberg infamously hacked into Harvard’s network and copied over dorm ID pics to populate his new “Hot or Not”–like polls. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean Facebook infringed on this patent — it would be a baffling oversight on the current corporation’s part — but it could still be historically significant in the lawsuit, since it goes back to roughly the same timeline.
But is it much ado about nothing? It’s just a button, after all. Well that may be so, but it strikes at the core of the Zuckerberg enterprise. Facebook “likes” have been credited as a key factor in the social giant’s success. That little button drives huge traffic, acts as a springboard for partnerships and third-party corporate initiatives, and has become inextricably tied into the company’s branding and identity. It has even taken on a life of its own, appearing on T-shirts, bumper stickers and innumerable satirical works on- and offline.
Rembrandt Social Media — which now owns this and other Surfbook-related patents — filed the suit in a federal court in Virginia. Facebook had no comment on this pending litigation, however, legal documents filed contend that it was aware of the patents. That seems like a no-brainer: Apparently Facebook cited them in its own patent applications for social networking technologies.