Judge Refuses To Halt Facebook’s Timeline; Spills New Details

A federal judge refused late on Friday to grant a temporary restraining order to Timelines.com, a Chicago company that says Facebook’s timeline service may “eliminate” it. The decision noted Facebook’s assurances that it would not proceed with a full launch of “timeline” until the parties meet again in court on Tuesday.

But the judge’s order also said Timelines can try again to stop the rollout, and revealed that Facebook’s new service already has 1.1 million ‘graph developers’ with 100,000 to 200,000 more signing on every day.

The court fight is about Facebook’s much-hyped digital scrapbook called ‘timeline,’ a service that displays a user’s life history by reviving every one of his or her old Facebook posts. Timelines, which offers a scrapbook service of its own, filed an emergency request to stop Facebook’s plan which is expected to go live any day now.

In refusing to grant the temporary restraining order, Judge Edmond Chang noted that Facebook has pledged not to broadly launch the feature before the parties appear in court again on Tuesday. He noted that the service is for now available only to the 1.1 million people (and counting) who have volunteered to be “graph developers.” As explained by TechCrunch, these volunteers can sign up for a pilot version of the timeline by following a relatively simple series of instructions.

Judge Chang also refused Timelines’ request to force Facebook to stop enrolling new developers, but did require the social networking giant to make daily disclosures about how many new developers are signing on. He also stated that emergency relief was not required because Facebook had stopped redirecting users away from Timelines’ own Facebook page.

The order means that Facebook’s timeline is for now on hold until at least Tuesday when the parties will make more detailed arguments before another federal judge about whether an injunction should be imposed.

In an email message, a Facebook spokesman said that a company executive was simply reaffirming existing plans when he testified before Judge Chang that “timeline” would not go live before Tuesday. Numerous developers, however, earlier reported that they received messages from Facebook that the product would launch on September 29.

Facebook made a splash at the f8 conference on September 22 when it announced it would replace users’ standard profile pages with the timeline feature. Some critics blasted the feature as a “stalker’s paradise” because it displays not just users’ recent activities but their entire Facebook lives. Others have suggested the creepiness factor is overblown because users will be able to delete posts about ill-fated love affairs, failed exams and other old musings they don’t want others to see. At the f8 conference, a Facebook VP also said that the company would unveil the timeline gradually in order to give users time to adjust.

But for now at least, the legal fight is complicating the launch. Timelines has a strong case because it has a registered trademark for “timeline” and it has been using the word in a field of business very similar to the one Facebook is now entering. Facebook’s best hope is to convince a judge that the word “timeline” is generic and, indeed, this is what the company argued on Friday. The law will not allow a firm to own a descriptive word unless it has acquired a distinct secondary meaning — that is why, for instance, an auto dealership can’t prevent a competitor from using the word “car” in their name. Facebook is in for a fight, though, because Timelines did not hire a two-bit legal team but instead the media law powerhouse Reed Smith.

The next phase in the legal dispute will come on Tuesday, but don’t expect it to drag on too much longer. Facebook has more money than it knows what to with these days, and it appears intent on using “timeline.” Based on other tech-related trademark disputes, it is very likely that the owners of Timelines will soon be happily reviewing a settlement agreement on a beach far away from the Chicago winter.