Boing Boing and Slashdot Pick up on Flickr’s Attempt to Patent Interestingness

[I am the Evangelist and CEO for Zooomr]

Boing Boing: Flickr files a patent for “interestingness” Well a few weeks back I posted on Yahoo’s attempt to patent interestingness after reading a notice on the patent at Bill Slawksi’s excellent blog SEO by the Sea. And yesterday both Boing Boing and Slashdot picked up on the story as well.

Boing Boing quotes one of their readers Peter Rothman:

“I don’t think Flickr should be able to get a broad patent on “interestingness”. There’s a very large number of papers in the image processing and collaborative filtering areas that all define various notions of relevance, interestingness, salience, or novelty. A specific innovative technique might be patentable, but not the general idea of computing how interesting an image or media object is to a person or set of people.”

Another comment from Slashdot:

“Don’t you just love how many of these companies go about patenting an idea (or similar idea) that is already used by the masses. This is such a joke, next thing you know (providing the patent is upheld) Yahoo will start suing folks like Amazon and our beloved Slashdot for patent infringement. Most people wouldn’t even consider patenting something that is already, to some degree, “common knowledge”. I thought the whole purpose of patenting was to protect intellectual property that has yet to be implemented or conceived. Hmmmm…I guess I’m just totally wrong in that assumption.”

In more direct terms I would say that these patents suck the big one. It sucks both that Flickr thinks that they can “own” their user’s social activity and it sucks that they think that only they should be allowed to use the concept of harnessing community activity to highlight community work on a site.

Allowing a community to be editors and allowing interestingness (which is really popularity) to determine media promotion is a central feature seen on many different Web 2.0 sites. Digg uses their user input to determine their own version of interestingness (the digg front page). They use a proprietary algorithm that like Flickr’s is based on user activity. Reddit uses user input. Sites like YouTube and Odeo highlight popular content on their sites as well based on user input, activity, etc.

Flickr/Yahoo trying and “own” the concept of interestingness is a slap in the face to every other community that is being built outside of Yahoo! and it puts the threat of legal pressure on any non Yahoo! community.

This patent application also just goes to show you how absolutely clueless the U.S. Patent office actually is. The fact that they would allow a patent application like this to move forward when it is a fundamental tool used by so many other non Yahoo companies is absurd.

I could see Yahoo applying for trademark for their term interestingness as it applies to photo search. I could even see Yahoo trying to apply for a trademark over their exact specific mixture of an algorithm. (eg. 30% of the algorithm is faves, 22% of the algorithm are comments, 12% of the algorithm is tags, etc.). But to try and “own” the concept of non Yahoo communities organizing their content is just, well patently ridiculous.

I hope that Yahoo/Flickr does not succeed with this patent because it will put a chill in the air for every other content centered internet property on the Web. I can’t imagine that they will get away with this and I’m glad to see Boing Boing and Slashdot giving this story additional exposure.

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  1. Raoul says:

    Hear, hear! I agree, I could see them patenting a specific mix/proportion of Flickr-specific criteria, but to patent a system for determining photo popularity when that’s been done, re-done, mashed and re-mashed by just about all of the social Web 2.0 sites out there, just doesn’t make sense.

  2. alan patrick says:

    I agree…I was quite stuned when I read the paptent, this whole thing is getting ludicrous.

    I had blogged on it here before I saw your post, but I think we need Protection from Patent Proliferation

  3. Anonymous says:

    This post is a bit self-serving, considering that Thomas is the “Chief Evangelist” at Zooomer. The vitriol expressed here seems calculated to harm a competitor.

    Obviously, the idea or concept of “interestingness” by itself cannot be patented. The specific process used for determining “interestingness” certainly can and that’s what the patent is about.

    Personally, I think software patent reform is badly overdue. But given the current legal environment, I don’t see anything out of line with this one.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Thomas,

    Big fan of your photography, but feel that you’re making something out of nothing in this case. Worse, it feels like you’re doing it for personal gain, and without adding anything constructive. Hopefully you can help me see it differently.

    Google’s “PageRank” is an algorithm for measuring the social popularity of a web page. Flickr’s “Interestingness” is an algorithm for measuring the social popularity of a photo.

    PageRank’s algorithm is patented, but the concept is not. I think it would be hard to argue that their patented /algorithm/, which gave rise to a new technolgy direction for all, has been bad for the industry.

    I would imagine that Interestingness, as a concept, will be excellent for the photo and media space.

    How is this case different than Google’s patent? Do you begrudge Google’s patent and feel it has stifled innovation?

    If so, well, make the case.

    If not, stop crying foul and instead beat them at their own game. I want lowercase-“i”-interesting photos — an outstanding feature I love and am addicted to — and hope you and yours has what it takes to deliver them to me.

    I don’t disagree with those that think patent reform is an area of worthy investigation, but through all your self-serving spin it’s hard to believe that is your sole point.

    Best wishes for your success.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    Anonymous, as said below. I do not oppose Yahoo patenting a certain formula for how they come up with interestingness. A specific formula unique to Yahoo would be one thing.

    But if you take a moment and read what the patent is asking for it goes much, much futher than this. Yahoo is not trying to patent a specific algorithm (like Google’s PageRank), they are trying to patent the whole concept of using user generated activity to rank photos. This is far too broad, violates prior art, and would prevent other communities from using *their* user’s social input for promoting interesting photos.

    From the patent: ” * The quantity of user-entered metadata concerning the media object,
    * The number of users who have assigned metadata to the media object,
    * An access pattern related to the media object,
    * A lapse of time related to the media object, and/or;
    * On the relevance of metadata to the media object.
    * Whether the media contains undesirable content such as obscene imagery or promotions of a competitor’s product.”

    They are not patenting a specific algorithm (like PageRank) but rather a vague concept of an algorithm based on things like metadata, activity, etc. And *this* I have a problem with.

    Certainly I and Zooomr have a bias here. I am certainly not suggesting we don’t. I’ve made a point of disclosing my affiliation with Zooomr.

    But, we too would like to show our community interesting photos based on our user’s activity. We have developed our own algorithm (Flickr’s is secret) based on the inputs that we think will produce the most interesting photos for promotion on our site.

    If, however, the entire concept of using not a *specific algorithm* but *any* algorithm based on user activity is patented by Yahoo! we would be at risk for being sued. This would not be good for any non Yahoo community.

  6. Thomas Hawk says:

    By the way. If I am reading this wrong, and Flickr is really only patenting their specific mixture and algorithm then a lot of other people are confused and taking it wrong as well (as evidenced by the Boing Boing and Slashdot posts) and it would probably be worthwhile for Flickr to clarify that they do not intend to claim patent for user based algorithms but rather their narrow and specific mixture of user activity that they use in their specific algorithm. To date, Flickr or Yahoo have not made this distinction despite the attention that this patent application has generated.

  7. Anonymous says:

    anonymous here again – thanks for your reply.

    First:

    [snip]
    it would probably be worthwhile for Flickr to clarify that they do not intend to claim patent for user based algorithms but rather their narrow and specific mixture of user activity that they use in their specific algorithm.
    [/snip]

    A:
    You’re kidding, right? Last time you bought a car did you inform the salesperson at the beginning of the negotiation what your final price would be? Of course not, you started from a more favorable position and negotiated toward the center.

    The Web is lovely, but it’s still part of the real world. Welcome.

    B:
    The section of the patent you cite simply defines terms. I believe you’ll find a generic and voluminous section like that in each and every patent app.

    C:
    “Worthwhile”? Worth who’s while?

    Second:

    If it violates prior art like you say, then what’s the problem? If it will be tossed, then Y!Flickr’s just wasting time and that may be the edge you need.

    Third:

    [snip]
    as evidenced by the Boing Boing and Slashdot posts
    [/snip]

    That’s horribly faulty logic on your part. That those smart but sensationalist audiences hold a position does not make the position true. I can’t believe I’m even taking the time to type that out.

    Fourth:

    [snip]
    …we would be at risk for being sued.
    [/snip]

    Either you believe there’s prior art or you don’t.

    Thanks.

    PS: I’m of the camp that believes the patent system need reform. However, even from that position I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

    PPS: I’m rooting for Zooomr and hope all the excellent competition benefits me as a user.