Sticky situation: WhoGlue v. Facebook

By now, you may have heard about WhoGlue Inc., a tiny Baltimore tech firm, launching a lawsuit this week against Facebook for infringing on a key patent that essentially covers social networking and privacy features. (Here's my original story from yesterday.)

The patent at issue is titled "Distributed personal reationship information management system and methods," and was first filed in 2001 -- three years before Facebook was founded. It's worth noting that Facebook doesn't hold any patents currently.

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In my interview with WhoGlue's founder, Jason D. Hardebeck, he made the point that much of what social networks now provide in terms of online privacy controls was something that his patent and technology has covered since 2001. The U.S. Patent Office issued the patent, after a lengthy review, in mid-2007.

So who is Hardebeck? At 44, he's a serial entrepreneur, meaning he's been involved with starting up a bunch of companies in his life. He was Maryland's first "entrepreneur in residence" in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. And he's executive director of the Maryland Business Council.

His company, WhoGlue, has a big minority stakeholder: Siemens, the tech giant.

Hardebeck did his undergrad at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was trained as a nuclear engineer. He later received a graduate business degree from Johns Hopkins. He's worked for Black & Decker in the past. In addition to running WhoGlue, which builds membership sites for associations and nonprofits, he's run market development for a Boston-based startup company called Ze-Gen.

"I pretty much keep my fingers in a lot of different pies," Hardebeck told me.

On patents:

I spoke with Max Oppenheimer, a law professor and patent expert at the University of Baltimore, about the world of patents.  We talked about how sometimes, a technology becomes so widely used and accepted that it's hard to think that somebody may have a patent claim on it from years before. That's the case here with WhoGlue v. Facebook.

A patent filing can take 2-3 years to make its way through the system, and WhoGlue's seems to have been more complicated because it took 6 years. So, by the time the company was awarded the patent, the process and method that it had patented was being used by others.

"If the (patent) examiner looks at your application and thinks you have something new and nonobvious, then they're supposed to issue the patent to you," Oppenheimer told me. "By the time it comes out, it may be something commonplace."

Pretty messy, huh?

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