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Phoenix Media sues Facebook

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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Phoenix Media/Communications, which owns The Boston Phoenix and other local alternative weeklies and websites, is suing popular social networking site Facebook for allegedly violating a patent related to setting up online personal profile pages.

Tele-Publishing Inc., a division of the Phoenix company that provides multimedia personal and dating services ads to 200 newspapers and broadcasters nationally, including The Washington Post, filed the complaint in US District Court in Boston on Wednesday.

The lawsuit alleges that Facebook’s “computer network and method of creating and sharing a personal page’’ is covered by one or more claims of a patent issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office on June 26, 2001, to Tele-Publishing. The patent includes an online template and graphics for building a personal Web page and provides users with a secure way to share personal information with other computer network users, according to the suit. The company doesn’t specify what damages it is seeking.

Devon Corvasce, a spokesman for Facebook, would not comment on the suit except to say, “This suit is without merit, and we will fight it vigorously.’’

Daniel Gleason, an attorney with Nutter McClennen & Fish, which is representing Tele-Publishing, declined to comment on why the Phoenix is filing the suit now and what damages the company is looking for besides attorney fees.

“We’re not going to get into that now,’’ said Gleason, referring to the suit.

Peter Kadzis, executive editor at Phoenix Media/Communications, said the suit has been in the works for the past year. Earlier this year, the recession and slumping advertising revenue forced the Phoenix, Boston’s largest weekly, to cut costs, including laying off 2 percent of its staff and cutting wages of all employees. Tele-Publishing has 25 employees and is based at the Phoenix’s Boston offices.

“The intellectual concepts that Facebook uses to give its users maximum flexibility of choice while maintaining the highest level of privacy replicate/duplicate those developed by TPI many years ago,’’ said Kadzis. “It’s not a frivolous suit.’’

Facebook has exploded in growth since launching in 2004 as a social site for students at Harvard University. It has since expanded to other universities, high schools, and the general public. The site currently has 300 million users with the fastest growing demographic being people older than 35, according to its website.

In violating the patent, Facebook is drawing revenue away the Phoenix, the suit claims. But the suit does not specify how much revenue Tele-Publishing may be losing.

At least one patent expert doesn’t think the lawsuit is unusual, given the defendant, Facebook. “Facebook and other larger and successful companies are targets of these lawsuits by virtue of their success and notoriety,’’ said William Heller, a patent lawyer with an office in Boston.

The outcome of the Phoenix case, Heller added, can open the door to other alleged online patent infringement claims. “When a patent is litigated and upheld as valid and is found to have been infringed, it is generally easier for the patent owner to sue others who may be infringing the patent,’’ he said.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.