Amazon Patents Studio Photography on Seamless White Background

Amazon Patent Seamless White Background copy

Amazon has had some pretty revolutionary ideas over the years. The Kindle is awesome. Prime is a great service. And drone delivery may be on the horizon. However, Amazon has gone a bit too far with one of its latest “inventions.”

Amazon Technologies, Inc. (a subsidiary of Amazon.com, Inc.) has legitimately patented studio the common studio photography method of photographing subjects on a seamless white background using a cyclorama and the USPTO actually granted the patent.

Amazon claims in the patent that its idea is some sort of novel approach and suggests:

Prior art solutions for achieving such a result for capturing images and/or video of objects set against a true white background include solutions that often involve some type of image retouching, post processing, “green screen” techniques, or other special effects and image and video manipulation to achieve the result of an object set against a true white background.

Accordingly, as will be described herein, embodiments of the present disclosure provide a studio arrangement in which an object can be photographed and/or filmed, and the images and/or video captured by the camera achieve the effect noted above without any image manipulation due to the particular arrangements of the subject, camera, lighting and background. (emphasis added)

[sarcasm] Because no photographer prior to Amazon’s filing on November 9, 2011 ever achieved a seamless white background without post processing or “green screen” techniques… [/sarcasm]

Amazon Patent Seamless White Background Overhead copy

I’m a little rusty on my patent law; however, I’m pretty sure that the novelty of an invention is still a requirement for a valid patent. Accordingly, if an invention is commonly known to the public before it was “invented”, then it is not novel. Given that seamless white background studio photography techniques have been around since prior to Amazon’s 2011 filing, the patent should not have been granted.

While Amazon makes some pretty specific arrangement details in its patent (e.g., an elevated platform that is 21″ high), the general structure is the same techniques photographers have used for years to get that seamless background look.

So the next time you post one of your studio shots of a subject against a white background, don’t be surprised if you get a cease and desist letter from Amazon ordering you to stop using Amazon’s novel approach to studio lighting.

Seriously though, I can’t conceive what Amazon is thinking about doing with this patent application. You can read the patent for yourself here at the USPTO. And, if you have any thoughts on Amazon’s latest invention, fire away in the comments.

[via Lighting Essentials]

 

Comments

  1. Douglas J. Louden says

    As with Adobe, those of us incensed by this foolishness can vote with our pocketbooks by not purchasing via Amazon. We should in form them of our reason for closing our accounts.
    I will cancel my account immediately upon completing this note.

  2. Jesus GC says

    Utterly ridiculous. It will become overturned sooner or later once the non-photographer people who work at the patent office realize they messed up entirely and made a fool of themselves on the global scale.

    • NV Graphman says

      Sorry Syd I have the patent on 15 thru 19.5 inches and have applied for 22 thru 25 inches. Guess you will have to go higher or lower. :o)
      Seriously though, I seem to remember that you can’t patent a natural occurrence or process. Since any visual effect (or it’s photo recording) is part of a naturally occurring situation, I would think that this patent would only protect this exact set up. If a court rules that it covers a general situation…? I am announcing my intent to patent any type of photographic recording using sun light!

  3. Plato says

    This is not dissimilar, albeit larger scale, to the system I use to photographs items for ebay. Come at me, Amazon.

  4. Braddy says

    I also thought this MUST be an April fool! There is nothing in it that is novel as far as any studio photographer is concerned. In my limited knowledge of patents, this would be completely unenforceable. What is being patented? Not equipment, obviously. Must be know-how. Duh!! The patent wording is vague. Using words like “substantially” and allowing positioning of equipment to be within a range is not precise enough for a patent application IMHO.
    GET REAL AMAZON.

  5. Matt says

    As with all Amazon scare patents, you have to look at what the claims actually cover. See here: http://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?docid=08676045&SectionNum=4&IDKey=E46B73448505&HomeUrl=http://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/

    The simple version is that to infringe a patent, you need to provide all the elements of the claim.

    Claim 1 of the patent in question (US 8,676,045, see above link) requires the use of an 85mm lens, an ISO of ‘about’ 320, an aperture of ‘about f5.6′, and a lighting ratio of ‘about’ 10:3.

    So this claim probably does pass the novelty test, because the Examiner won’t have been able to find any prior art with that specific combination of variables. Of course he would have found examples of high-key studio set-ups, but that’s not what’s being claimed (per se).

    To be patentable, the claim must also be non-obvious. Under US patent law, this is a fairly subjective test, and applied in ways that often seem to be out of step with most of the rest of the world. With regard to obviousness, the Supreme Court has unfortunately muddied things up rather than clarified them the last few times this has come up. From a philosophical point of view, a very specific set of camera settings may not be ‘inventive’ (the European standard) but they may nevertheless not be ‘obvious’. I’m still surprised this got through. But here we are.

    So, Amazon now have this patent. Will lots of people infringe it? Er, no. Only (for certain) people using an 85mm lens, ISO 320, f5.6 and a 10:3 light ratio (amongst other things – there are other elements in the claim that also must be proided). There’s some wiggle room around most of that because of the ‘about’ language, but I think (*not a formal opinion*) you’d be totally in the clear using a 100mm or 50mm lens. Zoom lens with a range encompassing 85mm but not set to 85mm exactly – probably not but a grey area. Would ISO 400, f6.3 or 10:4 light ratio infringe? Also a grey area, likely not especially if combined.

    Also bear in mind that (unless you include metadata in the finished JPG on a website and have an inspectable or well-documented studio set-up) it’s going to be very hard to work out who is infringing – mostly all you’ll see is a product against a white background, which could have been produced by any means, including photoshopping out non-white bits of the background as in the prior art. (Yes there may be a vague suggestion of a particular focal length or aperture, but you couldn’t determine this to an appropriate level of accuracy to determine infringement in this case).

    This is basically a very limited patent. I haven’t read the prosecution history and I don’t know what discussions went on in Amazon, but this looks like a desperate attempt to get absolutely anything granted, no matter how limited, just so they could say the technology was patented in vague terms, and/or to use it as a stick to beat competitors around the head (which is relatively easily done in the US system as you can rack up huge losses even if you win).

    Is this a patent abuse? Well, Amazon (being Amazon) have managed to stoke up another controversy, not making them or the USPTO look too great, again, but (without having checked the arguments and prior art on the record) a patent this narrow in scope doesn’t seem like any sort of abuse. How it’s used, and in particular how anti-competitively, will determine whether this is patent abuse, but that’s more a question of anti-trust law and commercial judgement than a question of whether a patent should have been granted. If this was someone other than Amazon this patent wouldn’t have come up, full stop.

    (To learn more, you could inspect the prosecution history via the USPTO Public Pair site.)

    (I am a qualified European/UK patent attorney and a photographer – go figure – but am not giving an official opinion here, certainly not on US matters)

    • Torben Winther Graversen says

      Thanks for your post. Since you appear to have understood much of this patent, would you provide some perspective on this from your expertise:

      Since it is so specific, this patent to me resembles patenting a large number or string of characters.

      A classic example is when companies patent a specific gene. In a made-up example, it’s maybe gene number 123879823498 along the DNA sequence of genes in some organism.

      Now, as I understand it, in order to patent such a specific gene, it has to have some unique purpose and often in a specific context. E.g. ability to turn organism red in the dark. They can’t just plant a flag at some random location in the gene sequence and claim it like a piece of land.
      And put another way, it needs to matter a whole lot that they didn’t claim the gene just before/after it, or ten positions away, since those genes probably do something radically different.

      So, for this Amazon patent, it seems that they are claiming a very specific area inside a very well known area of photography, this technique of achieving a seamless white background. If you combine the various specifics into a string you get something like “85mm,ISO320,f5.6,10:3,21inches”.

      So my question now is, does the patent offer any claim to why this particular sequence is special? And radically different from “82mm,ISO320,f5.6,10:3,21inches”?

      Is it some kind of “sweet spot”?
      Does it make a particular type of subject look special in some way?

      Or doesn’t the patent have to disclose such points?

      • says

        I am no patent lawyer, but by my own reading of the patent application it does not appear to be very specific. The Abstract at the beginning talks about “various embodiments of a studio arrangement” and then gives an example. It talks about a ” SUBSTANTIALLY seamless background” – not really a sweet spot there!!
        Fig 3 is very specific, talking about the order lights are switched on, but again if this is one of various embodiments, then the order could presumably be changed and the patent would still apply.
        Within the background on Page 5, the top surface of the platform CAN be made of a material which CAN include, but is not limited to, plastic. Not very specific.
        Further down, it states that the “background of any color can be chosen”, so in the small print, the patent is not limiting itself to white only!!
        The background CAN be “approximately ” nine feet from the centre of the platform, but as the platform dimensions are not stated, the background could be any distance greater than nine feet away. A platform 20 feet wide would have the background placed 9 plus 10 feet away – the patent still applies!
        There are to be “one or more rear lights” – again, pretty vague.
        “At least a portion” of the lights has to be positioned between the platform and the background, – presumably anything from 1% to 99%.
        Lights can be positioned in “various angular orientations”.
        One light source can be on OR NEAR the floor angled upwards at APPROXIMATELY 45 degrees.
        I could go on and on. The whole disclosure is so full of “approximates”, and “can be”s that I would defy anyone to state categorically that any photographer who achieved the desired effect had done so without infringing the patent.
        The essence of just how vague and ridiculous the whole thing is is summed up in the last paragraph of Page 7. If you read nothing else, read this.

  6. says

    Stuff like this really makes me think there are a lot of companies out there that don’t understand what a patent is, or know the difference between patents and trademarks.
    The patent process largely is based off the rule of, whatever it is can’t be easily duplicated.
    If its widely used by the public already, (IE: Public domain) it can’t legitimately be trademarked either.
    This is not the first time the patent process has been abused, some may recall certain companies attempted to patent stuff like ordering off the web with X number of mouse clicks or that absurd supposed scientific formula for picking the correct life mate in a dating pool. They were all approved until challenged in court. The number of incoming patent requests I guess is so high that the patent office does not have the man power to proof read them anymore. If my assumption is incorrect then the patent office is fabulously high off their butts on that government grade pot I keep hearing about.

    It must be groundhog day.. History is repeating itself.

  7. Matt says

    The USPTO process is flawed in many respects, and I’ve received my fair share of absolutely brainless examination reports, but I can assure you that everything is examined. In the business methods/software field, it is in fact relatively difficult to get anything granted these days – including (to the detriment of my own clients) a lot of good, technically-focussed inventions that deserve protection. (That may in fact be why the only dodgy-looking Amazon patent in recent times has gone through in a photography-rather than software-related field).

    Unfortunately patent and trade mark laws are complex. As much as it is tempting to reduce the issues in a case like this to a good soundbite or two, while there may well be errors and/or abuse involved, things are not usually as clear-cut as they seem.

  8. Plato says

    Last year, Amazon won a US patent for ‘milk delivery’, where something is regulary delivered without continuous ordering.

    I wonder if they are also going to patent the horse and cart that delivered milk to my house back in the 60’s.

    • Matt says

      I hadn’t seen that one (US 8,370,271). Claim 1 is:

      1. A computer-implemented method for providing recurring delivery of products, the method comprising performing instructions under the control of a computer system for: receiving at the computer system a designation of a delivery slot and a recurring delivery list comprising one or more list items, each of the one or more list items identifying a product, a quantity to deliver, and a frequency of delivery; periodically generating, by the computer system, an order having a date and time for delivery based on a next occurrence of the delivery slot, the order being generated in advance of the date and time for delivery such that the order has a period of time of pendency prior to the delivery; creating, by the computer system, one or more order items for the order based on a last delivery date and the frequency of delivery of each list item in the recurring delivery list; receiving at the computer system a change made to a first list item of the recurring delivery list during the period of time of pendency of the order; in response to receiving the change, determining, by the computer system, whether the order includes an order item corresponding to the first list item; in response to determining that the order includes an order item corresponding to the first list item, modifying, by the computer system, the order item corresponding to the first list item based on the change made to the first list item of the recurring delivery list; and providing, by the computer system, the order to an order fulfillment system capable of causing the one or more order items to be delivered substantially on the date and time for delivery.

      Yeah, that’s pretty bad. It’s a lot broader than the photography one. Presumably the Examiner hadn’t found anything which disclosed all those claim elements, and he judged the difference to be non-obvious. So the problem is either the quality of the prior art search, the assessment of obviousness, or both.

      What I’m finding, by the way, is that increasingly Examiners ask you to narrow claims – not because they’ve really found prior art to justify that (in which case, fair enough) – but because (and this is entirely speculation on my part) they don’t want to be the guy that issues the next silly Amazon patent. So thanks, Amazon, for poisoning the well…

      On the plus side, it is getting easier for third parties to challenge US patents/applications, but there is further to go.

      • Matt says

        PS though it’s not as bad as it’s portrayed – i.e. simply scheduling a repeat order. There’s a lot more to the claim than that.

  9. Jack says

    It makes me wonder though, exactly *why* did they patent this? I know they photograph models wearing this or that clothing, but it would seem like a huge waste of time and money for something as generic as this. And enforcing it would be a bottle-of-asprin headache to enforce. Unless there’s some back-office lawyer trying to justify their position, it just doesn’t seem worthwhile.

    • therealcbone says

      Best guess: someone wanted royalties per picture and threatened to sue them over their product pictures or were asking questions that got their lawyer sense tingling and they decided to CYA via patent.

  10. Braddy says

    Thanks Matt for clarifying things – most importantly clarifying just how ridiculous this patent is. If there is infringement where 85mm is used but not if 90mm and so on, who would ever be able to tell the difference without access to Exif data? I still maintain it is too vague to ever be enforceable. Too many ‘about’s, and the vagueness concerning ‘plurality’ of lights. If I light the background with one light missing from the claimed layout, then I presumably have not infringed, even if every other condition is met. If I add a light in which is not listed – even if that light is set too dim to make any difference, then again I presumably would not be guilty of infringement.
    A brief reading of what has been claimed leaves me wondering what the patent is actually protecting and what possible loss could ever accrue to Amazon. Can someone please confirm that this really was an April fool?

  11. says

    Matt (and others), I’m not sure your claim that specific distances and settings makes this one difficult to enforce. The patent itself notes (on page 7) that the “angles, dimensions, distances, settings, parameters” (etc.) are “used for convenience and brevity and thus should be interpreted in a flexible manner”…

    That paragraph goes on for a while but makes it clear that it includes “all the individual numerical values that can be employed in a studio arrangement to achieve the desired effect…”

    They’re not patenting specific camera settings or object distances/height; they’re patenting the entire process of using light against a background to make it look white and seamless.

    • Matt says

      With all due respect, they’re not patenting ‘the entire process of using light against a background to make it look white and seamless’.

      The purpose of the description (including page 7) is the describe the invention, so that the ‘person of ordinary skill in the art’ can reproduce it. In the patent bargain, this is what you give in return for your patent claims, which define the extent of your patent monopoly.

      Furthermore, if the original claims didn’t include the specific restrictions to the ISO, aperture and focal length, and they added those limitations during prosecution in order to get around cited prior art, those restrictions are pretty much cast-iron requirements for infringement.

      You may want to believe that Amazon are pulling a massive fast one here, but it’s not supported by the facts.

  12. Tim says

    From Amazon’s point of view, another company could have gotten this patent, and taken Amazon to court over the product shots used on Amazon.com.

    Lots of companies get patents just to legally cover their business, not necessarily for malicious purposes.

    • Braddy says

      Good point, Tim. Never thought of that. Surely, however, if we generally agree that Amazon’s patent is unenforceable and could not be policed, then I’m sure that their own legal team would have no problem defending any case brought against them because of their infringement of an identical patent taken out by somebody else. As a separate point, why should we assume that Amazon would not act against an infringement if the very reason they applied for the patent was to avoid others taking out the very same action?

  13. Braddy says

    Point taken Wil. It would appear that the diagrams are merely sample embodiments of the disclosure, so multiple and varied configurations are possible. As far as settings being limited is concerned, why would you set focal length or aperture or ISO outwith the stated ‘about’ settings if you end up with the lens distortions or wrong DOF or diffraction issues or noise on your image?
    I therefore agree that Amazon seem to be monopolising the process. Outrageous! Do you think
    I could patent the positioning of a reading lamp and the bulb wattage required so that the light produced was conducive to reading a book comfortably? Don’t think so!!!

    • Mark says

      And I will patent the letter A. (Oops, that’s been taken by Amazon.) Okay, I will patent the letter B.

  14. says

    Hey Amazon! Come on, do you really want to patent Studio Photography on Seamless White Background that has been in use for the last 70 years, really?
    What’s next? Are you going to try to patent human D&A?
    Amazon is an extremely successful company, do you really need to squeeze more money out of the working people who buy your products?
    Please answer this question, who is going to be around to buy your products when your reckless greed becomes common knowledge and we just don’t like you anymore.
    Who knows, maybe Amazon is just a blip on the cash register? One thing is for sure. Your corporate greed has just cost you this customer! Shame on you!!!

  15. patrick says

    I think we need to locate the person who patented the “stick figure man” and have them go after Amazon’s drawings.

  16. says

    Ridiculous that Amazon is so greedy to patent something that people have been doing for such a long time and shame on the patent office actually approving it. Ya, I guess I should patent how to sit on a couch and watch tv. So lame.

  17. Marcus J. Wilson Sr. says

    I explain how to do this technique using seamless paper and studio lights way back in 1995 and posted it on Photo.net. While my technique is not quite the same as Amazon, they are very similar, especially in results. I didn’t try to patent my idea because it is a basic technique of studio photography. If this is the case then all of the techniques in creating photographs can be patented. Here is the link to my photo technique. http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=12082
    If anyone wants to pass this on, or use it as a teaching tool, feel free to use it.

  18. Régis says

    Louboutin patented the red shoe sole. Amazon patented the white wall. Next step for USPTO: patent the blue sky.

  19. Plato says

    I’m going to patent a particular size wheel (with 10% copyright tolerance).

    Then maybe flying cars and time travel, just in case.

  20. says

    Never mind what Amazon has done, what was the patent office thinking? Next thing will be a patent on my favorite stormy gray backdrop coloring.

  21. Ernesto says

    Get the f – – – out! Invented ? I’ll have to patent my walk on water shoes then.

  22. Dheerankur says

    Its hilarious ….. Why shouldn’t all of us take a stand and stop buying anything from Amazon?
    They will soon patent all the alphabets A to Z too I guess. Lets just stop buying stuffs from Amazon and teach such people a good lesson.

  23. says

    This is straight out of left field. I almost think this a joke of some kind. Smart move though if they were looking to make a bit more money is lawsuits.

  24. says

    This patent seems just so incredibly specific, that I can’t see the uproar. They didn’t patent shooting on a white background. They patented a very specific process, that they use. You change a few items on that process, and you are not breaking the patent, yet getting the exact same photo.

    Of course, I have no clue why they are doing this. I just can’t see something this specific being used as a bludgeon.

    Now, the milk delivery patent mentioned above… yea, THAT one is nuts.

  25. says

    I learned the white on white technique from Varden Studios in Syracuse, NY in 1956 & used & taught it all over the states & Canada since I opened my studio in Bellport, Ny in 1964. I also took all of the corners out of the studio walls. Any one needing info on these methods, can email me @ jonnrossi@gmail.com

  26. Richard N says

    The patent office should have done some research to find the very first user of that technics and the patent should have been awarded to that very first photographer who invented that technic. So basically the patents office should have issued the patent posthumously to the real creator before giving it to the first comer which is Amazon.

  27. baydon smith says

    Here again we have another example of American business trying to dominate the world then they wonder why they ate so disliked in the third world countries ,this is a great example of such bull shit this has been done for years by photographers in all countries, it is clear that it is aimed at make it difficult as they are able for anyone anywhere in the world to list an item for sale on any website. I don’t think the Chinese will take much notice of this patent, there is one thing, the patent lawyers will have a field day on this one, you can see the cheques rolling in E.G. THE APPLE SAMSUNG affair boy OH boy did they have a field day on that one it would be interesting to know what there bonus payments were worth. In the meantime the world goes on that is until you get caught up in the bullshit and lose everything you ever worked for just because you entered an image in the Georgia Salon sponsored by the Photographic society of America lets hear what they have to say on the matter or are they tared with the same brush as Amazon

  28. says

    I got bored pretty quickly reading the patent application, but is seems like they made it awfully specific. It seems like you could modify a few of their criteria, such as the lens size, and patent your own version. Just thinking.

  29. todd says

    Did they mention a specific sensor size or sensor type or lens brand or camera brand/model? Just looking for a loop hole.

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