Facebook lawsuits have become as regular as rain but this one, filed yesterday in Chicago, stands out. It is a trademark claim from a site called Timelines that could force Facebook to halt the release of “timeline”, its much-hyped digital scrapbook which is expected to go live any day.
(Late on Friday, a judge rejected an initial emergency request to bar Facebook from launching its timeline service. The court, which will revisit the issue again on Tuesday, also ordered Facebook to disclose to Timelines.com the rate at which people are signing up for the service).
In the complaint, Timelines seeks damages and an immediate order to prevent it “from being rolled over and quite possibly eliminated by … the world’s largest and most powerful social media company.” The claim is unlike many of the nuisance trademark suits that pop up when a big company launches a new product like, say, iCloud. In this case, the plaintiff has a viable business that could be harmed and it appears to be seeking real court relief — not simply a pay-out to go away.
The new Facebook product at issue is “timeline” which the social networking giant has been promoting heavily on its site and in the media. The new feature is a super-profile of sorts, displaying a story-of-your-life chronology based on every single one of your Facebook interactions.
The problem is that Chicago-based Timelines.com has been using “timeline” since 2008 for its own digital scrap-booking site where users meet to share images and stories on everything from the Civil War to a high-school basketball game. The site also partners with major newspaper companies to create sports chronologies. In its complaint, Timelines offers a web link to a Boston Globe site where visitors can “access timeline information about .. a particular Red Sox game [or] about the entire season.” (The link brings up a headline “Dream Year Ends in Tatters” and a day-by-day display of the team’s spectacular collapse).
Under trademark law, brands have a right to prevent others from using their name if there is a likelihood that consumers will be confused. In general, trademark rights only apply to names that are in the same field or industry. That is why, for instance, it is possible for separate companies to carry on business as “Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) records”, “Apple computers” and “Apple Auto-Glass.” In the case of the timelines name, however, Facebook will have a hard time arguing its product is unrelated because the Chicago company’s trademark is for “a web site that gives users the ability to create customized web pages featuring user-defined information about historical, current and upcoming events” — this seems to describe almost exactly what Facebook is offering.
Facebook also has another possible defense to trademark infringement — that the word “timelines” is generic and that the Chicago company can’t prevent others from using it. It seems that this is, in fact, the strategy Facebook will employ given that it has chosen to display “timeline” in lower-case letters on its website announcements. This decision also suggests that Facebook’s lawyers, battle-hardened from fighting the Winklevii, have been anticipating yesterday’s lawsuit.
Neither Facebook or Timelines immediately returned requests for comment.
Timelines has its own page on Facebook. In its complaint, it alleges that the social networking giant is shifting visitors away from this page and redirecting them instead to Facebook’s own timeline page.
The court filing also states that Timelines is seeking a temporary injunction which is a quick, stop-gap order that courts will grant if a party can show they will suffer permanent harm during the time it takes for a case to go to trial.