When word got around a couple weeks ago that Amazon had received a patent for an obvious photography studio trick, many bloggers had fun heckling Amazon (for filing) and the US Patent Office (for awarding) a patent which documented a trick that photographers had been using for decades.
Amazon’s patent covers a process for taking a photo against a white background with the goal of reducing the number of shadows and other blemishes in the resulting image. This is an old photographer’s trick which is so well established, as some have pointed out, that you can find how to guides and demo videos online which explain the steps involved.
So this patent is clearly a strong argument for patent reform, right? Amazon has patented the digital photography equivalent of sliced bread, right?
Rebecca Allen, posting over on her blog, writes about her take on the patent. She read it and concluded that it is something new:
Here’s what the patent is: set up your studio like this and you will have a photo of a subject that is brightly lit with no shadows (actually, there’s usually something below the feet, if it is a human model standing, but why go there?) and a completely translucent background without having to do ANY post-processing whatsoever. Everyone invoking photography and studio set ups from before the digital era has Comprehensively Missed the Point.
So why would Amazon want this and why wouldn’t everyone have already figured out how to do this? You can tell that people _had not_ figured out how to do this, because it is Dead Easy to find people asking how to avoid, minimize or expedite the post-processing hassle of removing shadows and lines and so forth and getting answers that focus on making the PhotoShoppery easy and effective vs. avoiding it entirely. R. is able to find both film (the crazy awesome wonderfulness of Elsa Dorfman) and digital photographers who have gone a long way down the all white background/brightly lit path, but it is stupidly easy to play Find the Shadow/Detect the Light Source. (Remember: I’m not a photographer, so if I can do this easily, it MUST be stupidly easy.)
… Why did Amazon do it? Two reasons: it’s incredibly labor saving (cheap!) once the hassle of setting up the studio is amortized over millions of photographs. And it creates a Look without looking like it is a Look. The Amazon item photo is unbelievably recognizable, but you probably never even noticed that.
One could argue that a common trick like this is too obvious to deserve a patent, but I think that misses the point. This is a trick which photographers are trying to perfect, and one which everyone shares tips online. If this were obvious then there would be no need to share tips online.
In short, Amazon has a patent on perfecting a trick that photographers have struggled with for decades. Amazon might not be the first to get it right but they are the first to document their success.
And for that, they got a patent.