June 20, 2014

Lucas Myslinski was tired of having to fact check the questionable emails his father often forwarded to him.

“My dad would send these emails where they say something like, ‘Oh the government is stockpiling billions of dollars of ammunition’ and other things like that, where if all you would do is take a little time and look on Snopes you would find it’s not true,” Myslinski said.

That very problem has inspired projects such as LazyTruth, Truth Goggles, and Trooclick, all of which I wrote about last week, as well as the Washington Post’s TruthTeller. There’s a broad consensus that in a world of abundant, and often incorrect, information it would be valuable to have an app that “automatically monitors, processes, fact checks information and indicates a status of the information.”

Myslinski sketched out his ideas and then took the step of patenting them. The above quote is in fact taken from one of his many patent filings and summarizes the core of the systems he has imaged and diagrammed over the last few years.

“I filed the initial ones and then as I had new ideas I attached them to it and kind of kept growing it,” he told me by phone this week.

As a result, since 2012 Myslinski has been awarded eight U.S patents related to fact-checking systems. It’s arguably the largest portfolio of fact-checking patents in the U.S., and perhaps the world.

Filing for patents is Myslinski’s day job. He began his career as a software engineer and is today a patent attorney with the Silicon Valley firm Haverstock and Owens, L.L.P.

A patent attorney in Silicon Valley holding eight fact-checking patents is interesting enough on its own. But it’s what Myslinksi did in March of this year that makes these patents even more notable.

That month, he transferred ownership of all of his fact-checking patents to a major Silicon Valley company, though perhaps not the first one you’d think of: LinkedIn.

Yes, the juggernaut of professional networking and recruiting is now the owner of perhaps the most significant portfolio of fact-checking patents.

I asked Myslinski what LinkedIn plans to do with his former patents.

“You know, I don’t know,” he told me. “I haven’t had any real discussions about what their plans are for it.” (Some entirely speculative thoughts from me are below.)

I contacted LinkedIn for comment and not surprisingly they didn’t offer any specifics, either.

“We are a fast growing Internet company and it’s not uncommon for us to expand our patent portfolio,” said spokesman Doug Madey in an emailed response. He also declined to name the cost of the acquisition.

I asked if LinkedIn planned to use these patents for product development and Madey said, “Our patent acquisitions do not necessarily foreshadow new product innovations.”

Mark Lemley, director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science, and Technology and a partner at Durie Tangri LLP, listed three main reasons why a company like LinkedIn would buy patents:

(1) to try to shore up legal rights in a product space they consider important, (2) to resolve a claim that they are infringing those patents, and (3) because they think the patents will be useful to target a competitor or someone who is in turn threatening to sue them.

Michael Carrier, an intellectual property expert and distinguished professor at Rutgers School of Law, said LinkedIn’s acquisition likely has more to do with its competitors, rather than a specific interest in fact-checking.

“Companies acquire any patents that they think they can use against competitors,” he said. “LinkedIn must believe that it will be able to use these patents against rivals.”

For his part, Myslinski said he sought out a patent broker to sell his portfolio because he realized he wasn’t going to be able to turn the patents into a real product.

“First I focused on the patents and then I did have a developer develop a prototype, a very basic one,” he told me. “But then you know with just life and everything going on I figured it would probably be best to see what I could get out of it in terms of monetizing.”

The Patents

LinkedIn now owns these fact-checking patents (ordered by most recently granted):

  1. Method of and system for fact checking with a camera device
  2. Method of and system for fact checking email
  3. Social media fact checking method and system
  4. Web page fact checking system and method
  5. Method of and system for fact checking rebroadcast information
  6. Fact checking method and system
  7. Fact checking methods
  8. Fact checking method and system

There are also some open applications, including this one, which was just made public last week. It’s for a “Fact checking Graphical User Interface Including Fact Checking Icons,” and builds on the existing patents by introducing claims related to a user interface to display the result of fact checking claims.

Here, for example, is one drawing from that filing, a pair of “fact checking glasses”:

More important than the newly published application is the core patent in the portfolio, “Fact checking method and system,” which was granted in May of 2012.

That patent’s claims, in my view, represent the kind of systems being used, at least in part, by the aforementioned existing efforts in the world of automated/real-time fact checking.

Myslinski said he is aware of Truth Teller. I asked if he felt the project infringes on the patents. He hesitated before answering. “That would be up to [LinkedIn] to decide.”

I also asked LinkedIn. “We do not comment on intellectual property implications outside of the case of an active lawsuit,” was their answer.

That 2012 patent outlines Myslinksi vision of a checking system. Here’s what he wrote about the benefits of the system:

The fact checking system will provide users with vastly increased knowledge, limit the dissemination of misleading or incorrect information, provide increased revenue streams for content providers, increase advertising opportunities, and support many other advantages.

The patent’s specification includes a myriad of potential applications, from checking basic facts to alerting TV viewers to political bias on the part of a commentator, and imagining ways that viewers could flag items that need to be fact checked. The basics of the system are outlined in this diagram:

Again, that’s very basic. And, again, it arguably applies to how TruthTeller and others do their work… but that’s my non-legal opinion. (I’ll also state that my hope is these patents would never be used to stop efforts to develop fact-checking applications and systems.)

If Carrier, the patent expert, is correct and LinkedIn wants these patents mainly to use against competitors, then it’s important to consider who falls into their competitive set. Social networks, as well as jobs websites, are certainly competitors. (And when I saw those glasses I of course thought of Google Glass.)

But so too are publishers and other online information providers.

LinkedIn the publisher

LinkedIn has in a very short time become a major online publisher. The first big step in this direction came in the form of the purchase of Pulse, a news reader app that has since been revamped to power LinkedIn Today, a section of the site where the Pulse algorithm helps surface relevant content in a variety of industry and topic areas.

LinkedIn also has a small editorial team led by Dan Roth, formerly of Fortune. (Disclosure, when I was working at Spundge, a start-up, I met with Roth and a member of his team, and demoed our product.)

One of the biggest editorial efforts at LinkedIn is its Influencers program that has influential executives, entrepreneurs and others contribute content to the site. A more recent evolution is the expansion of LinkedIn’s CMS to enable anyone to write and publish content on LinkedIn.

That context makes the acquisition seem more in tune with LinkedIn’s editorial efforts. If they wanted to actually use these patents for innovation, an obvious step would be for LinkedIn to integrate fact-checking into its Pulse content algorithm. Then it could conceivably begin to offer professionals a feed of the most important and accurate information in their given industry.

That would save people time, and saving busy professionals time is a powerful value proposition. Of course, it would also bring people back to the site in a way that’s more effective and less annoying than all the “It’s Jane Doe’s birthday” LinkedIn emails.

And if LinkedIn can build an algorithm and system that reliably surfaces the most accurate content about a given topic, then that’s also a powerful tool to help scale its LinkedIn Today curation efforts – without requiring additional human editors. (Sorry folks!)

But the above is of course speculation on my part. Maybe even wishful thinking, given my affection for fact-checking. It’s entirely possible, and probably more likely, that LinkedIn simply wants to keep these patents in the chamber should they ever need to fire upon competitors.

If that’s the case, I hope the promising efforts in this emerging space don’t end up being collateral damage.

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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