Amazon's ridiculous photography patent makes Mark Cuban happy

The latest intellectual property grab by Jeff Bezos is a huge gift to advocates of patent reform

Published May 9, 2014 7:42PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

If you are, like Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, a person who believes that the U.S. patent system is completely out-of-whack, then the news that Amazon was recently granted a patent for the process of shooting pictures against a white backdrop was simultaneously a cause for outrage and reason for jubilation.

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The outrage part is easy. Studio photographers have been taking pictures against white backgrounds for ages. The notion that such a thing could be patented strikes many people as inexplicable and bizarre. But that's also exactly why this particular tidbit exploded so quickly out of the amateur photography blogosphere and into the mainstream tech press and finally to the attention of Mr. Cuban. It's the perfect example of why we need comprehensive patent reform.

Cuban believes all patents should be abolished, and has put his money where his mouth is, donating $250,000 in 2012 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to pursue patent reform. Cuban joked at the time that "part of my donation funds a new title for EFF Staff Attorney Julie Samuels: 'The Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents'."

Amazon is notorious for ratcheting up the patent wars online when it sought and won a patent in 1999 for one-click buying. At last count, the company boasts 1263 patents, (which is a lot more than the paltry 50 claimed by its retailing competitor Walmart, but not even in the league of technology giants like Samsung and IBM and Intel.)

What's really going on with this particular patent is hard to say. The actual patent includes extraordinarily specific language. For example, there has to be "at least one image capture device equipped with an eighty-five millimeter lens, the 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."

Here's what I think has happened. As George Anders wrote in Forbes, Amazon treats "retailing as an engineering problem." Every possible step in the process of online shopping and delivery is refined endlessly.

Sometimes the incremental progress seems ridiculously small. But Amazon’s filings are reflective of a grind-it-out culture, based on the belief that a systematic series of small gains can add up to something big.

Amazon takes vast numbers of pictures of products against a white background for its online catalogs. So it makes a certain kind of twisted sense that Amazon has applied its standard obsession over detail to figure out the most efficient way to take such pictures. The patent granted to Amazon is for the company's most efficient configuration.

The patent seems utterly unenforceable, absent an army of inspectors who barge into photography studios across the world patrolling for infringing setups. And it still seems utterly ridiculous: how does Amazon know that photographers haven't already stumbled upon the exact same setup. And how, in any rational sense, is this the kind of thing that patent law was originally designed to protect?

But there you have it: Cause for outrage, and grist for reform. A window into the insane corporate mindset created by Jeff Bezos, and an opening for the likes of Mark Cuban to pursue their own agendas.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Amazon Intellectual Property Jeff Bezos Mark Cuban Patent Reform Patent Trolls Patents Photography