Vuestar, a patent-holding company from Singapore that describes itself as "the Pioneer of visual search," is asserting patent rights in the technology that enables websites to link to other webpages using an image rather than text. According to Ars Technica, the firm recently has been sending invoices to companies that it believes are using its patented technology. The impact of this patent claim could be huge -- as another report puts it, "almost every site on the Internet" uses this technology to link photos and graphics to other webpages. This Vuestar logo is a good example (and, no, it doesn't link to Stuff on My Cat.com):
Vuestar claims to hold patents in Singapore, Australia, and the United States. The U.S. patent, titled "Method of locating web-pages by utilising visual images," was filed in 2001 and granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2006. While the patent claim itself appears to describe an image-based search engine technology (which sounds very similar to Google Image Search), Vuestar apparently believes that the claim extends further. The FAQ section of Vuestar's website makes clear that the company views ordinary website image-linking practices as within the scope of its patent.
I'm no patent expert, but at least under U.S. law, this patent looks like it has serious problems in terms of "obviousness" in light of prior art in the field. Jacqui Cheng at Ars provides some helpful analysis of this point. This is an excellent candidate for some patent busting efforts or maybe just a good old-fashioned lawsuit. There are lots of interesting questions, including whether the patent claim can encompass Vuestar's assertion relating to ordinary page-to-page links (i.e., non-search-engine-y uses), and whether the patent was non-obvious in light of prior text-based search and linking technology. Go get 'em!
P.S. TechCrunch's post wins the award for most humorous, noting that the Vuestar patent "is kind of like creating a patent to identify a goat on sight."