Visual Search Engines: A New Side Door for Competitors or a Better Infringement Detection Tool?
Text-based search engines, such as Google and Yahoo (remember Ask Jeeves?), were arguably the most important development leading to our now everyday reliance on the Internet. The concept is simple: type a word or string of words into that inviting text box and instruct your favorite search engine to scour the Internet. The search engine does its magic and quickly displays a list of results, typically hyperlinks to webpages containing information the search engine decided was most relevant to your search. As web technology has progressed, search engines have become smarter and more robust. All major search engines can now, in response to text input, spit out a combination of web pages, images, videos, new articles, and other types of files.Of course, IP owners and those interested in capitalizing on the IP rights of others have found many creative ways to leverage search engine technology to get their goods and services to the top of search engine result pages. These techniques have sparked an entire industry—search engine optimization—which has long been the subject of copyright and trademark litigation. Given that nearly all consumers now have camera-enabled mobile devices, search engine providers have invested heavily in “visual” search engine technology. Visual search engines run search queries on photograph or image input, instead of text input. For example, a tourist visiting the Washington Monument can snap a quick photo of the famous obelisk and upload it into the visual search engine. The visual search engine will then analyze (using, for example, AI or other complicated algorithms) various data points within the photograph to identify the target and then spit out relevant information such as the location, operating hours, history, nearby places of interest, and the like. Google (Google Lens), Microsoft (Bing Visual Search), and Pinterest are all leveraging this technology.Critically important for IP owners, visual search engines can be used by consumers to identify products and quickly comparison shop or identify related products. A golfer could snap a photograph of a golf shirt and ask the visual search engine to return results to find a better price on that shirt or to identify a matching hat or pair of pants. Similarly, a music listener could snap a photograph of an album cover and ask the visual search engine to return results for other music in the same genre that might be interesting to the listener. These are only a few examples of the powerful capabilities of visual search engine technology.