The fact that patent trolls may now have a harder time trumping up frivolous lawsuits against viable companies after the Supreme Court made a reinterpretation of established statutes is only one piece of good news for patent lawyers who represent such companies. Other pieces of news, like this one published in the online technology news site Engadget.com, border on the ridiculous. Amazon’s petition for a patent in photographing items with a white background was granted this year, throwing up dust and a firestorm of questions in both the legal and intellectual property community.
“Because really, what then is the point?” people are asking. The Engadget article compares Amazon’s new patent to the on Smucker’s holds for the process of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And while lawyers like Cam Tu Dang, an intellectual property attorney based out of Las Vegas, have been taking issue with the comparison, the emotional response elicited from the comparison rings true for Amazon’s photography patent. Smucker’s patent may have more to do with the specific process of making “uncrustable” PB&Js than your average after school snack, but the question remains: why?
Amazon, isn’t likely to sue for usage rights by independent studio photographers, intellectual property lawyers like Dang say. The patent is called nothing more than “Studio Arrangement,” and refers to the process of capturing the images of objects in front of a plain white background with very controlled lighting. Amazon’s patent narrows in on the widely used concept to specify particular lighting settings like a “plurality of light source consuming about 40 kilowatts.” It would be hard for Amazon representatives to discern whether photographers were using “an ISO setting of about 320,” or an “elevated surface positioned about 21 inches above a floor level.” No, lawsuits aren’t likely.
Photographers hearing about the patent have shared some candid responses, such as calling the issuance by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office “absurd,” and raising questions about the usefulness of such a license. So, what is the point? What does Amazon have in mind “in addressing such a widely used practice,” and why is the USPTO going along with it?
Answers to those questions aren’t forthcoming. The writer of the Engadget article speculates that Amazon “is making a joke of the U.S. patent system by demonstrating how much companies can get away with,” but patent lawyers say jokes like that aren’t always funny. Neither are they the quickest or most efficient way to bring about reform, if that is indeed part of Amazon’s agenda. And in the meantime, companies like the world’s largest online retailer headed by a CEO worth over $33 billion* get to draw up all the cards on simple, everyday practices. Again, while there isn’t an immediately visible, verifiable threat from Amazon over its holdings, that sort of power distribution may be worth worrying about in the future.
*Things $33 billion will buy: Facebook; 32 homes for every American citizen; Iceland and Jamaica (according to GDP); 462 days of a world without hunger; or almost 2 years of NASA.