Friendster, the early social networking company that stalled when younger rivals like MySpace passed it by, has won a social networking patent, as reported by RedHerring.

But if you look at the patent details, and consider precedent in this sector, it’s likely the patent will be used as a defensive tool — rather than as a predatory attempt to wring license fees from other companies. It focuses on things like the pathway of relationships, how they are displayed, and the determination of who is in your circle of friends.

This isn’t surprising. Friendster applied for the patent three years ago, around the same time LinkedIn chief executive Reid Hoffman bought rights to another key social networking patent.

LinkedIn’s patent (No. 6175831), by contrast, focuses on databases of contacts, how contacts are defined, how you email those contacts, but says nothing about pathways of friendships. Basically, it covers all forms of “relationship confirmation.”

At the time, Hoffman made clear his move was ”for protection” against a bigger player that might grab the patent, kill innovation and stain the industry with spam-like tactics that turn users off.

He said at the time he wanted to use the patent to build a ”friendly coalition” of companies, forcing licensees to abide by user-friendly practices, he said. Examples included giving users control over their data and privacy, allowing them to design their own profiles and delete personal information.

But Friendster was excluded from the original coalition — even though Hoffman had a 2.5 percent ownership stake in Friendster — for reasons that weren’t explained. So it was natural that Friendster applied for its own patent.

Looking at the Friendster patent info linked to above, you will see a long list of other patents in this area. It makes for a confusing hodgepodge, and it’s certain companies will have a difficult time enforcing these patents in court. It is also strange that the U.S. patent office should take three years to award something like this, when innovation in this sector has charged so quickly ahead, and the landscape has changed so much.

RedHerring reporter Liz Gannes asked about possible legal moves, and Friendster President Kent Lindstrom responded:”It’s way too early to say…We’ll do what we can to protect our intellectual property.”

While we’re on the subject of strange patent filings, we note that the U.S. Navy may be patenting the Firewall!

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