Street View patent doesn't bar competitors

Google's patent covering ads within Street View will not prevent other maps providers from selling ads in their own online maps, says lawyer.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

Google's bid to patent ads within its Street View application will not bar other maps providers from selling ads within their online maps, says a lawyer.

The search giant earlier this month was granted a patent protecting the process of displaying ads on its street-level map imagery, called Street View. The patent description details Google's use of its technology to identify spaces such as posters and billboards, within the Street View imagery and selling them off to advertisers.

Street View currently uses a technology that automatically scans and identifies sensitive information such as faces and car license plates, and blurs these images out.

While Google said it has no plans to put ads in Street View, there are concerns online about whether this prevents other providers, such as Microsoft or MapQuest, from selling ads on their maps.

Han Wah Teng, associate director at Singapore-based law practice, Nanyang Law, said in a phone interview that Google's patent covers the process used, detailing how a space is automatically identified and how ads are placed over these spaces.

That means a competitor intending to display ads through another method--for example, by manually identifying spaces, instead of automatically--could still sell ads on their maps, said Han. Since a manual method of selling ads uses existing technology that is not covered by the patent, maps providers that use such methods would not be breaching the patent, he explained.

Google's patent, filed in 2008, also describes an advertising auction process, which links the image of a property to its owner, or puts it up to the highest bidder. This opens the possibility for a business competitor of the company photographed to take out an ad on its building. For instance, a Street View billboard located next to a restaurant may end up displaying an ad for a competing establishment, if the latter wins the space.

Han said this may open an ethical debate but within the eyes of the law, it is not prohibited yet. Since the Street View images are copyrighted by Google, the company can manipulate them in any way it deems fit, he said.

"There is the broader question of whether Google should be allowed to take photos of buildings and manipulate them in that way, but that [is an ethical] debate [that] falls outside IP (intellectual property) law.

"There are no laws regulating such considerations at this point," he noted.

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