A hot topic of late in the world of IP is the controversy over Google AdWords and its policy of allowing, and in some instances suggesting, that advertisers purchase the trademarks of their competitors as “AdWords” so that they will come up as a sponsored link when the competitor’s brand is searched.  Now a recently published Patent application filed by Google in June 2008 may signal a practice that could put an entirely new wrinkle on the AdWord controversy.

In its patent application, Google is essentially seeking to protect a method for identifying potential advertising locations within “an online geographic view”, such as its Street View feature within Google Maps, so as to allow for real time advertising to be positioned or superimposed into that view.  For example, if you are looking at an image of Times Square, Google could cover an actual billboard image with a targeted advertisement of its own.  While at first blush some might question whether replacing an old stale ad from an old image with a new fresh ad is a cause for concern, regardless of whether a patent ever issues, the practice described therein could be a virtual Pandora’s box of IP related issues.

One basic issue is the simple fact that someone owns that billboard, and someone else paid to place their ad on that billboard, yet in the virtual world, it is Google and its advertising customers that are benefiting from the existence and placement of that billboard.  This issue, however, is not new, as in 2002 several Times Square advertising companies unsuccessfully sued Sony over its alteration of billboards in the movie Spider-Man. (more).  Unfortunately for Google, the scenario could be vastly different if it pursues what this new technology outlines.  

What if every time a consumer enters the search term Starbuck’s to search for a nearby location using Google maps, the Street View showing that location also shows an image the billboard next door with a Dunkin Donuts ad, the latest special, and a note that they are right up the road. Indeed, there arguably doesn’t even need to be an actual billboard in the image, as any open space could get a virtual billboard.  A Honda billboard next to a Ford dealership, an Ace Dentistry Sign next to Alpha Dentisty’s building … the posibilities are endless and all up for the highest bidder. 

Because the arguments that Sony successfully used in its Spider-Man case were largely First Amendment arguments related to the artistic aspects of the movie, and Google’s potential virtual ads would seem to be entirely commercial in nature, Google may not be able to rely on that prior decision.  More likely this would be viewed as AdWords II – Attack of the Billboard Snatchers (more)