Amazon's new patent could make returns harder

In an odd twist, Amazon has patented a process for videotaping its outgoing packages being prepared for shipment. Is this for quality control, or a next generation of the shipping confirmation e-mail?

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read

A new patent awarded to Web retailer Amazon.com could change what customers see in their shipping confirmation e-mails, as well as making falsely problematic returns more difficult.

U.S. patent number 7,689,465, which was unearthed early Tuesday by blog TechFlash, outlines a process wherein the company films outgoing packages being boxed up. Stills from these videos, or the entire video clip of the packing, can then be sent to the buyer for what Amazon says is verification of both the order and the shipping address.

But the idea behind the patent is not just for customers, it's also for Amazon and the sellers of the products. "Merchants may also include flyers or other advertisements, frequently for third parties, when packing and shipping orders," the patent says. "Generally, third parties can only verify that such advertisements are correctly included with orders by making random inspections of order processing locations."

It goes on to say that when something goes wrong--like say a damaged or missing element of the shipment, the merchants wouldn't otherwise be able to point their finger at any one party. Under the new system, they'll at least be able to know it was packed up correctly by Amazon, putting the onus on whatever company was used for shipping, or back on the buyer. So, if you as a customer say something was missing or damaged with your order, Amazon will have a simple record that it shared with you, that can be used to verify a problem before it left the warehouse.

That finger pointing can be extended to Amazon's own staff as well, whom the patent says can be included in the filming. However, the patent details that this could just be certain body parts: "in other embodiments, only a portion of a processing agent may be viewable in captured images, such as the hands of an agent placing an item in a shipping carton," it says. What's unclear is whether Amazon would want to disclose the identity of its employees to the world at large by including their faces as well.

Amazon's patent details a system that films your shipment being packaged up and sent out, complete with photos and videos of the process, being sent to your e-mail address. United States Patent Office / CNET

Beyond video and still images, the patent also mentions the use of audio. However, from the patent it's unclear how important this will be in the system. The closest Amazon gets to explaining it, is simply as narration to what's happening on-screen in the preparation of special orders. "Audio information, such as a voice-over explaining how a value-added service is performed may be added to other captured data," the patent says. According to the patent, this is mainly for things like "engraving, monogramming, gift-wrapping, [and] battery charging."

So does this mean the end of easy returns at Amazon? Maybe if you were trying to scam your way into grabbing a free item or accessory that somehow "wasn't in the box" when you got it. If anything, the new system could add to some exciting early looks at product packaging before items make it to retail stores, as well as what is sure to be a dedicated Web site to goofy or otherwise unusual Amazon employee screen grabs.