Do Snapchat’s latest patents have something for everyone?

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Snapchat, with 100 million active daily users and a valuation as high as $22.7 billion [1], is increasingly following in the footsteps of its larger social media rivals as it continues to grow its footprint within the intellectual property landscape. Currently, the mobile messaging platform has published just under 50 patents, compared to over 4,500 for Facebook. The two most recently published Snapchat patents both concern ‘automatic recognition’ – one deals with facial recognition; and the other, object.

As far as the object recognition patent is concerned, this describes a system for generating a photo filter based on a ‘snap’ that a user has just created. The abstract of the patent points to a feature that is heavily focused on advertising opportunities, as it explains: “The object criteria may include associations between an object and a source of image data, for example, a brand of a merchant in which case the associated photo filter may include images associated with the brand of the merchant.” In other words, you might be able to take a picture of your hamburger in a restaurant and have a well-known fast-food chain slogan appear on top, as a suggested filter for inclusion in the snap. Snaps of everyday objects could trigger associations with brands - and the brands could bid to appear in the suggested filter, much like bidding for ad space on the web today. Within object recognition, other top filers (aside from Samsung) include Toyota and Honda, where the technology is being explored for automatic or self-driving purposes.

Of course, it’s exactly the type of technology that riles privacy and ad blocking advocates. In counterbalance to this, though, Snapchat published another patent just a few days later, with the title: “Apparatus And Method For Automated Privacy Protection In Distributed Images.” This patent describes a facial recognition technique, “which is executed against an individual face within the image to obtain a recognized face.” But, while Facebook has also talked of such techniques, in order to speed up features such as tagging friends, Snapchat takes a different tack, as it explains: “Privacy rules are applied to the image, where the privacy rules are associated with privacy settings for a user associated with the recognized face. A privacy protected version of the image is distributed, where the privacy protected version of the image has an altered image feature.” This means, for instance, that if you want to limit your facial image to just your group of friends only, you could toggle a setting that makes your face appear blurred to anyone outside this nominated group. So could Snapchat’s vision be the answer for limiting all that social damage when shots of our party revelries are shared digitally? Snapchat, which is just getting started in this technology area, is up against top filers IBM and, unsurprisingly, Google.

Maybe, then, there’s something for everyone here, although exactly how and when these technologies will be used in the real world remains to be seen. What is clear, at this stage, is the difference in patenting activity between Facebook and Snapchat, when we compare these on a like-for-like basis. Below is a chart showing patenting activity since the year of inception for both companies (using 2004 for Facebook and 2011 for Snapchat):

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From an innovation perspective, Snapchat is outpacing its larger rival in terms of patents published. It shows that Snapchat matured its IP strategy more rapidly than Facebook - and that IP has increased as a priority in the social media world. Nevertheless, Snapchat will have to ensure it keeps up this focus on innovation and doesn’t lose momentum.

[1] http://finance.yahoo.com/news/facebook-shouldn-t-worry-snapchat-170407909.html

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