Innovator perspective: How technology is transforming trademark research

Technology is reinventing virtually every aspect of business operations, including how organizations secure, promote and protect their brands. Cloud computing, social media, mobile computing, and artificial intelligence (AI) are rapidly creating new business models and market opportunities. They are also creating new challenges for brand owners—and new solutions for meeting those challenges.

How is technology impacting the trademark profession? And how is innovation creating powerful, new tools for meeting today’s global trademark threats? To get the answers, we spoke to Sandra Mau, founder of Trademark Vision, the tech company that created visual recognition technology geared towards trademarks and is now part of CompuMark, powering the next-generation of trademark research solutions.

How has the proliferation of marketing channels heightened the role of technology in brand protection?

SM: The expanding suite of channels available to brands today is leading to an increasingly decentralized brand structure. Controlling brand messaging and protecting brand rights are at the core of brand management, yet the flood of information across new and emerging channels makes it impossible to manage manually. As brand channels, strategies and tactics we haven’t even thought of today could become the norm tomorrow, technology will be essential for protecting brands—whether it be cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) or simply better management tools for gathering and disseminating data so informed decisions can be made quickly.

AI and machine learning will play a major role due to their ability to perform large-scale classification and analysis online. However, their utility is entirely dependent on the quantity and quality of data available, and the wealth of industry-specific knowledge and resources available to the research teams training the technology. So it’s important to take a skeptical approach to evaluating tools claiming to use AI or machine learning. In order to solve specific problems, such as cross-channel brand protection, machine learning must be tailored for the task; open source technology is not the answer.

 Social media has become a major factor in marketing. What are the pros and cons for brands?
SM: Social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have made it much easier and less costly to reach a large audience, while offering a degree of intimacy that enables social network members to feel more connected to the brand. That’s all good.

However, those same networks can, in the blink of an eye, create negative exposure for a brand that can be difficult to manage. Social media platforms also provide fertile ground for infringement, as other parties use your brand without permission or intentionally try to deceive the marketplace for their own gain. These threats demand a commitment to monitoring your brand on social media platforms around the clock.

Technology is helping address this challenge by automating what would otherwise be an extremely time-consuming, manual monitoring task. As technology continues to evolve, real-time notifications and analytics will enable brands to respond swiftly to potential brand threats on social media. Careful AI training will be critical, as analyzing contextual nuances will be essential for making in-the-moment decisions.

These realities have led to several major brands taking a step back from social media. UK cosmetics company Lush, e-car company Tesla, and UK pub chain JD Witherspoons have all recently announced they were cutting back or abandoning the use of social media and focusing on more traditional methods of brand engagement.

How has technology impacted the process of creating and securing new trademarks?   

SM: Technology opens up new opportunities for brand owners to be creative in how they define and display their brands. For example, in 2017 the European Union, which represents 22% of the global economy, implemented legislation that allows brand owners to apply for protection of trademarks that include multimedia elements—such as video, motion, holograms, and patterns—as well as sound and scent marks. The UK Intellectual Property Office followed suit in 2019, and reported that Toshiba became the first organization to register a motion mark in the UK and that Google obtained the first UK registration for a trademark represented by a hologram.

Technology also makes it easier to apply for these new trademark types. Instead of describing the mark in writing or with static, 2-D images, brand owners may now simply upload a copy of an MP3 format sound file or MP4 multimedia file to support the application.

 What best practices should brand owners and IP counsel keep in mind in today’s technology landscape? 

SM: Given the pace of technology advances, best practices are still taking shape. What is clear is the importance of having a solid strategy in place so law firms and brand owners are aware of the benefits—and the potential issues—that technology offers. They need to consider what the impact will be to their daily work, both internally and externally.

While technology can assist when clearing new brands, it is critical that clearance checks cover a wider range of channels than just traditional trademark registers, including domain names and social media. The same applies for protecting brands. Resources must be in place to manage these new channels with a comprehensive strategy that covers monitoring, policing and enforcing intellectual property rights, with an emphasis on online channels.

 How do you see the use of technology expanding within the trademark industry?

The adoption of technology within law firms and legal departments has greatly improved their efficiency—from electronic document storage and case management systems to more innovative IP protection and summary services. With the advancement of computing power, we are now seeing firms looking to adopt advanced analytics and automation of steps within the advisement process.

The introduction of intelligent AI solutions within the trademark industry is cultivating stronger client-attorney relationships. As firms take bigger steps towards improving efficiency, they’re able to offer a higher level of service and tailored advice, enabling them to effectively address increasing pressures on budget and timelines.

How are new technologies shaping the ways patent trademark offices (PTOs) work? 

SM: As the source of IP rights, PTOs have an extremely important role to play in brand protection. We are seeing IP offices around the world adopt better practices and new technologies, while working to empower trademark professionals with information that is more actionable and more accessible.

A recent example of this is the world’s first trademark registration mobile app, launched in August 2019 by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS). Called IPOS Go, the app allows brand owners to apply for trademark protection right from their mobile device through a simple process that takes less than 10 minutes. Applicants can use the app to track their registration status, receive updates, and file renewals on the go. We can expect similar innovations from other PTOs in the near future.

Another dramatic example is in the area of image recognition. We are seeing a wave of PTOs make the leap from exploring AI-based image recognition technology to implementing it for researching trademarks and designs. They are reaping tremendous benefits in improved indexing and searching, fundamentally changing how they serve their constituents into the future. Relative searches will become more precise. Whether or not the jurisdiction refuses based on similarity, image recognition will help address some of the uncertainty and lack of transparency of image trademark protection. Further advanced in technology will continue this trend and we’ll see even greater transparency and detail from PTOs.

What are key factors driving technology adoption by the trademark industry? 

SM: The trademark industry is extremely complex. There are the trademark offices, the legal community and brand owners—all very different entities with related but nuanced priorities, all attempting to work together. As PTOs adopt new technologies, we’ll see a flurry of IP attorneys and brand owners using more and more technology. This will dramatically improve accuracy and efficiency. This, in turn, will empower trademark professionals to improve the advice they give their clients and to deliver a higher level of service.

Because subjective judgment is an essential part of IP rights, the human components of trademark work will continue to be important. However, trademark professionals will be equipped with more actionable data than ever before. A happy byproduct of this could be that we see more IP rights collaboration among owners, as they identify potential issues earlier in the process and work together to resolve conflicts and avoid unknowingly infringing on another’s IP rights.

With products evolving so rapidly, how can technology help trademark professionals anticipate what’s on the horizon?

SM: Right now, we can see trends in IP rights just by analyzing the data. Looking at recent IP submissions is like looking into the future of what might be commonplace tomorrow. It’s exciting to see the innovations people are coming up with every day.

As we analyze this data with more innovative technology, we begin to see not only trends, but also how different technologies can be combined to create new business opportunities. This is perhaps a future we are moving towards, where technology helps us understand what can be advanced or combined. Collaboration among leading innovators is an exciting prospect, particularly if it can advance their visions and solve perplexing problems facing industries.

What is the greatest challenge facing the trademark industry as it relates to technology? 

SM: Change! Even when it offers clear benefits, change is often challenging for businesses and law firms to implement and manage. It requires investment of both capital and training. As is generally the case with new technologies, early adopters will be outnumbered by the majority who is more cautious, waiting for the technology to become mainstream before they commit.

Technological progress means that sectors can be disrupted by new entrants and new methods more easily than ever before, and the trademark industry is no exception. But trademark professionals who embrace the right technologies will be better positioned to weather disruption and deliver increased value to their clients or their companies.