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Facebook headed for trial

Friday April 5, 2013 at 9:30pm
Social networking giant, Facebook Inc., is headed to court this month over the use of a “Timeline” feature on its site. Confirmation of a jury trial is the latest development in an ongoing trade mark infringement dispute between Facebook and Timelines Inc., a small, Chicago-based company. In 2011, a week after Facebook (FB) announced its new “Timeline” app, the small online social-scrapbooking company sued the global networking site for infringement and unfair competition.

In its original complaint against FB, Timelines Inc. noted that it owned the “Timelines” trade mark, specifically for "providing a web site that gives users the ability to create customized web pages featuring user-defined information about historical, current and upcoming events." As such, it requested an immediate and permanent injunction against the FB “Timeline” feature to prevent irreversible damage to and potential extinction of its brand. In addition, it wanted “exemplary damages” and any profits FB would gain from its use of the “Timeline” feature.

In response to the suit, FB quickly counter-sued, requesting the court to cancel Timelines Inc. trade mark on the grounds that it might be deemed generic and therefore disqualified from protection as a trade mark. FB also asked for a judgment of non-infringement citing that “timeline” was a commonly-used word. The court did confirm that a temporary injunction was not necessary for the FB “Timeline” feature; but it ruled against FB in regards to the trade mark itself. U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah wrote in his ruling this past week that Facebook “has failed to demonstrate, as a matter of law, that the marks are generic.”

Timelines Inc. launched its Timelines.com site in 2009, having applied for the “Timeline” trademark the previous year. The site allows users to collaborate in the documentation of historical events through text, photo and other input. It currently has 1000 members and millions of dollars invested in the company, a point Judge Darrah commented in his ruling.

Currently, only 1.1 million Facebook users have the “Timeline” app uploaded. However, when the feature is made public, over 800 million users will be able to access it. Timeline Inc. is well aware of the consequences of this action. As a spokesperson explains, Timeline Inc. hoped the infringement suit and injunction would prevent it from being "rolled over and quite possibly eliminated by the unlawful action by the world's largest and most powerful social-media company, Facebook."

With a jury trial set for 22 April, Facebook may have more to lose than one might think. Although a massive global site, if FB loses, it stands to pay out damages equivalent to all “Timeline” derived ad revenue. Furthermore, FB could be forced to shut down the “Timeline” feature, which would prove to be a very expensive loss.
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