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While Facebook Places wasn’t the first on the location-based services scene, it may have just became the top dog. According to Eric Sherman at CBS’s BNET site, the company has been granted a very broad patent, filed in 2007, called “Systems and methods for automatically locating Web-based social network members.”

If the patent sounds a lot like targeting social network users using their smartphones and allowing them to check in to addresses, then you’ve pretty much described all of the location-based services available today, including popular mobile apps Foursquare and Gowalla.

Here’s the abstract:

Systems and methods for automatically locating web-based social network members are provided. According to one embodiment, contact content including an associated GPS identifier and status for web-based social network members located at or near the same location automatically appears on a GPS-enabled device. A further exemplary system includes a GPS-enabled device configured to receive a GPS identifier and a status representing a location and a current state for a web-based social network member, a processing module that associates the received GPS-identifier and the received status, and a communications module that sends the associated GPS-identifier and status to a server comprising a web-based social network database. Contact content in a web-based social network database record in the web-based social network database is updated to include the associated GPS identifier and status for the web-based social network member.

The patent was filed in February 2007. Just a few months later, Loopt, which first launched as an app on Sprint’s network, was considered the first location-based service and was a way to see your friends and what was happening from restaurants, shopping and nightlife in your general area. Since then, numerous services ranging from social networks to mobile games have popped up. It’s not clear why Facebook decided to wait so long after it filed a patent to launch its own service.

As pointed out by TechCrunch, it’s unknown how Facebook plans to use the patent. Theoretically, the company could use it to squash the competition, especially with future features. But companies frequently use patents defensively, to forestall lawsuits from other patent holders. Facebook could also use the patent as leverage in business deals with other location-based services to encourage them to integrate closely with its Facebook Places feature.

Facebook recently acquired a broad portfolio of patents and patent applications from social-network pioneer Friendster, covering much of the basic functions of a social network.

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