Microsoft Seeks Patent for CAPTCHA-Based Ads

Microsoft is seeking to patent a method for using a popular human-verification technology on the Web to deliver advertising to a captive audience.

However, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) may run into some resistance along the way, as it’s not the first time someone has thought about the ideas it’s trying to patent.

Many Web sites and online services use what are called CAPTCHAs — short for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. They require a user to prove that he or she is not an online “bot” by interpreting distorted text and numbers in a display box and typing those characters into a text input box.

CAPTCHAs, also referred to as human interactive proofs, or HIPs, can be used to assure that users visiting a site or using a service, for instance, an e-mail service or a blog, are actually humans and not a code-based scam, like a phishing scheme, for instance.

Microsoft, which filed its application in February 2008, is not trying to gain a patent on the CAPTCHA technology. Instead, the company is attempting to patent the idea of serving up advertising within CAPTCHAs. The application was made public Aug. 13.

“Users are accustomed to advertisements and can generally understand the content or message being delivered by them,” Microsoft said in its application. “For example, the user will be asked to identify a product, service, company, slogan or the like contained in the advertisement as the solution to the HIP challenge,” it continued.

All kinds of visual materials could be used in a CAPTCHA-based ad, including graphics, descriptive text, logos, colors, slogans and other visual elements and effects, according to the filing.

The application also aims to patent the use of audio, such as a company’s musical slogan, with CAPTCHAs in an effort to reach vision-impaired users, among others.

Clients trying to answer such HIP challenges wouldn’t need to be PC-based, either. “For example, laptop PCs, game consoles, set-top boxes, handheld computers, portable media rendering devices, PDAs (personal digital assistants), mobile phones and similar devices” could be used, according to the filing.

However, Microsoft may not have thought of the idea first, though it is unclear whether that will affect its patent application.

The technology blog TechFlash pointed out that other Internet denizens have been discussing the concept of using advertising as the solution to CAPTCHA challenges since at least 2005.

One blogger demonstrated what appears to be the same basic idea in a post to the Advertising Lab blog in January 2007, a year before Microsoft’s application.

Another blogger proposed a similar concept, including the use of logos and other graphic symbols, also on the Advertising Lab blog as early as October 2005.

Additionally, an Internet search turned up a company named adaptcha that claims to be conducting a closed beta test of a CAPTCHA tool that supports advertising in the way Microsoft’s application describes. An adaptcha spokesperson could not be reached by press time.

For its part, Microsoft doesn’t seem too concerned about the overlapping technologies.

“While we usually do not comment on patent applications while they are going through the USPTO review process, in general, it is not uncommon to have multiple patent applications filed for similar technologies, each specifying different innovative advancements,” a company spokesperson told in an e-mail.

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