Relatively new Web companies such as Facebook don't hold many patents and could soon face data-center-related legal battles. VMware CEO Paul Maritz, who has witnessed a number of patent skirmishes in the 1990s when he was at Microsoft, believes that many patent confrontations are coming, and Facebook may find itself in the midst.
Quickly-growing services like Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, LinkedIn, and Groupon have so far avoided becoming casualties in the ongoing patent wars, which have centered on mobile devices, but the honeymoon may not last. "When the continents shift and new players come into a space, it results in an unstable situation," Maritz told Business Week. "If you want to be a permanent fixture of the landscape, you better get some defense."
Social media websites have weak patent portfolios: Facebook has only 12 patents to its name, while the totals for the other guys range from zero to two each, according to filings with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Google was in a similar position earlier this year: it had far fewer mobile-related patents than its competitors. Last month, the search giant ended up buying Motorola Mobility and its 17,000 patents for $12.5 billion.
Martiz believes newer Web companies may ultimately have to do something similarly drastic as well. Older technology companies such as Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft maintain rich patent portfolios covering essential technologies used by the new guys, including database and file-management applications. Facebook and its other smaller cousins have so far been using free, open-source software and while so far the big guys have had little motivation to target the open-source products with lawsuits, this could quickly change. As we've recently seen, the open-source label didn't save Google's Android operating system.
Facebook will likely have to do more than just develop more patents to bolster its own portfolio. The social networking giant may have to stat signing cross-licensing deals with the bigger firms. Since Facebook doesn't have many patents to offer itself, it could be a one-way deal where the company forks over a lot of cash in return for patent protection.
Facebook has at least one assurance that the other younger guys do not: Microsoft. Almost four years ago, Redmond invested $240 million in Palo Alto. Ever since then, the two companies have been best friends and have worked together on many different products. As such, I doubt Microsoft would file a patent lawsuit against Facebook.
On the other hand, Facebook also has a very big enemy: Google. The search giant made some of its database work public and many companies, including Facebook, used this information to build their own data-center technologies. Maybe Google will do more to Facebook than just push competitors like Google+: Mountain View could take Palo Alto to court one day.
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