Customizing your news feed, privacy settings, and even marking a post as spam violates Yahoo patents, says Yahoo.

This week Yahoo has filed a lawsuit against Facebook for patent violations. A closer look at the language in Yahoo’s suit reveals that the company could theoretically be suing many social media networks for some pretty basic website functionality.

Many are calling Yahoo out as a patent troll for this recent lawsuit. It’s a popular term that gets thrown around a lot in a sea of patent lawsuits so it might be helpful to work from a common definition. A patent troll is a derogatory term for a business that goes searching for patent infringements just so it can sue infringers.

While the object in suing someone is usually to have a patent infringer cease and desist so the suing company doesn’t lose money or customers or any number of important aspects to its business, most patent trolls know that its lawsuits won’t actually win. The companies are just giving it the old college try to see if they can get any money and at the very least, trip up their competitors in a minor way for a short time.

Patents can work in a number of ways, and huge surprise, I’m not a patent lawyer. The most important point that keeps the free market running is that companies can draft licensing agreements and contracts so that others can use its patent in exchange for compensation of some kind.

Many companies broker patent exchanges (or cross-licensing agreements) so that they can use each others designs and technologies in a mutually beneficial way. The real trick to getting around patents is that companies often make minute changes to its designs or ideas so the products are similar to existing patents, but not alike enough to be sued.

Here’s the rundown of the violations Yahoo is leveling against Facebook specifically, but that could also be applied to a myriad of other websites and services:

Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn (and probably more) have a feature that lets users view their own profiles through the lens of different profiles (e.g. someone who isn’t a friend, someone who you’re hiding your photos from, etc.). Yahoo claims they thought of it first. Also, the idea of customizing the feed of your friends activity on Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and just about every other site with some sort of follow feature with a content feed? That belongs to Yahoo, says Yahoo. And Facebook’s 2010 implementation of unified messaging (where chats also appear as message and can also be used to send in-site emails) infringes on yet another Yahoo patent. The list goes on.

Many point to these types of lawsuits as the quintessential example of how the patent system is broken. While it’s important to protect your creations and investments, allowing for this kind of loophole to let companies sue willy-nilly over functionality that has become expected in all platforms (e.g. if you couldn’t customize your news feed in Facebook, I predict there would be riots in the streets) is really detrimental to the free sharing of ideas within an industry to keep innovation rolling forward via competition. Again, patents are necessary, but there’s no doubt that there are many problems with the current system.

Criticisms against the current patent system claim that there’s no room for innovation when companies and entrepreneurs are constantly worried about overstepping the bounds of one patent or another. Also, it seems like a way to make a quick buck by just patenting anything and everything as generally as possible. Companies like Apple and Hewlett-Packard (and many others) have been known to patent any and all hare-brained ideas that designers and developers come up with in a think box, just to hedge their bets in case the idea becomes usable in the future.

If you want to read more about Facebook and its latest innovations (that have probably been patented as well) check out our blog post “Facebook Announces New Payment System at Mobile World Congress.”