Amazon granted patent for taking photos against a white background – seriously

US Patent Office credibility approaching zero


You sometimes have to wonder if the US Patent and Trademark Office is augmenting its staff with a few barely trained gibbons – and its latest patent does nothing to ameliorate that view.

On March 18, the USPTO granted a patent to Amazon for photographing people and products against a white background. To answer your next question; yes, really.

US Patent 8,676,045 grants Amazon sole rights to "Studio arrangement", and lists in intricate detail how you can take an image on a white background using arrangements of lights, background materials, and a camera.

The patent is packed full of oddly specific details, from light source strength and positioning down to ISO settings and f-stops. However, it also comes with some worryingly vague language as well.

"It should be emphasized that the above-described embodiments of the present disclosure are merely possible examples of implementations set forth for a clear understanding of the principles of the disclosure," the patent reads.

"Many variations and modifications may be made to the above-described embodiment(s) without departing substantially from the spirit and principles of the disclosure. All such modifications and variations are intended to be included herein within the scope of this disclosure and protected by the following claims."

Amazon hasn't replied to questions from El Reg as to what use this patent could be put to, so we consulted the Electronic Frontier Foundation's staff attorney Daniel Nazer, who in March was appointed to the organization's "Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents" chair.

"Sometimes I feel that the patent system is a common sense–free zone," Nazer said. "With the Amazon patent, this wouldn't be a hard patent to design around, but it's completely baffling that a patent on this would issued."

Part of the problem, he explained, is that the USPTO gets its revenue from issuing patents, but also that there's no way to stop people trying to get patents on something and constantly reapplying after changing small details in the patent filing, so some may be issued simply to get rid of a persistent applicant.

There are plenty of examples of bad patents out there, he pointed out, citing US patent 8605152 B2. This gem patents "Method and apparatus for yoga class imaging and streaming," and was awarded last December 10.

The patent, awarded to YogaGlo, is for yoga classes that are filmed by a camera in the studio – hardly a new invention. But it's this kind of patent that's fuelling the swathe of trollish lawsuits which raked in $29bn in 2011.

If you are taking pictures of your cat – or anything else for that matter – on a white background, don't worry. Nazer said Amazon would be unlikely to try and use this patent in court, and it's more likely something that the company can just add to its existing portfolio.

But it's symptomatic of quite how barmy the USPTO has become that such a thing would even be issued. ®

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