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Trial underway pitting Facebook against Dutch whiz in patent case

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia--Facebook infringed on patents held by a Dutch computer programmer who tried to launch a similar site called “Surfbook” more than a decade ago, according to a lawsuit heard by a federal jury Wednesday.

The civil trial was underway in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, where social media giant Facebook is being sued by a holding company called Rembrandt Social Media.

The lawsuit alleges that a Dutch computer whiz, Joannes van der Meer, filed for patents in 1998, claiming methods for running a web-based personal diary. The patents were issued in 2001 and 2002, before Facebook debuted in 2003.

But van der Meer's website, Surfbook, never got off the ground. van der Meer died in 2004.

Menlo Park, California-based Facebook says the patents should never have been issued to van der Meer. The company argues that the ideas and methods put forward in van der Meer's patents were obvious to people in the trade.

The company fought unsuccessfully for more than a year to keep the case from getting to a jury. And it is unusual for patent-infringement lawsuits to make it all the way to a federal jury trial. Jason Rantanen, a law professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in patent law, said that roughly one percent of the thousands of infringement lawsuits filed every year-end up in that group.

Facebook, a frequent target of patent lawsuits, has typically been successful in fending them off. Rantanen said he could find only one other case where Facebook was the primary defendant in a patent-infringement trial that went to a jury. Facebook won that case.

Once a case gets to a jury, though, it becomes unpredictable, Rantanen said.

One factor that may work in Facebook's favor is what is known in patent law as “hindsight bias,” Rantanen said. Jurors looking back on the rapidly evolving history of social media and Facebook's ubiquitous status may conclude that the development of websites like Facebook was inevitable and that the ideas in van der Meer's patents weren't unique.

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