Yes, you read that correctly. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted a patent to Amazon for photographing people or things against a white background. If you’re thinking that this seems like an unoriginal idea, we’re right there with you. As our friends at Racked aptly pointed out, “the online retail giant has just been granted a patent for doing what every retailer has been doing since the internet was born.”
First, some info on patent law: A patent is granted to any person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” Being granted a patent means that you are given “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States. In order for an invention to be patentable, it must be new when compared to prior art (not known or used by others in this country prior to invention) and it must be nonobvious (the subject matter as a whole would not have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made).
If we were analyzing Amazon’s patent application before it had been approved, we’d tell you that it’s not likely to be a success story for Amazon, primarily because it’s hard for us to argue that photographing something against a white background is new or nonobvious. But since the patent has already been granted, let’s move on to some of the fine points.
The patent, named Studio Arrangement, was filed back in 2011. A bunch of specifics were added to Amazon’s concept, which we guess is part of what makes it innovative (?), like that there be “an eighty-five millimeter lens” and “at least one image capture device further configured with an ISO setting of about three hundred twenty and an f-stop value of about 5.6”. In reality, though, we’re just talking about some front lights, some rear lights, a white cyclorama background, and someone or something on an elevated platform.
In the patent description, Amazon offers some explanation as to why its photography technique is different than anyone else photographing with a white background: “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.” Meanwhile, the Seattle-based company provides “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.” So, Amazon’s method is more pure than the rest, apparently.
It may be that Amazon intends to use its patent to police others who are using true white backgrounds, or the company may have just wanted to go down as the inventor of the concept. Either way, more than just a few people are displeased. A petition asking the USPTO to “take back Amazon’s patent right to photography against a white backdrop” already has over 27,000 signatures. Thoughts?