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Photographers howl at Amazon patent of decades-old idea

A patent that covers a technique for taking photos with no-fuss white backgrounds is decades old, raising a new round of criticisms about the merits of the US patent system.

Amazon won a patent for a particular arrangement of photography equipment that isolates the subject in front of a white background.
Amazon won a patent for a particular arrangement of photography equipment that isolates the subject in front of a white background. US Patent Office

Photographers are hooting derisively at a patent Amazon won in 2014 for a photography lighting technique that's been in use for decades, a patent that's helped undermine the credibility of the patent system.

Amazon's patent 8,676,045, granted in March and titled "Studio Arrangement," describes a particular configuration of the photography subject in the foreground and a brightly lit white screen behind, an approach that "blows out" the background to cleanly isolate the subject.

It's a fine idea, but not a novel invention, argued David Hobby, a professional photographer since 1988 who runs the Strobist site that for years has been a popular source of advice on flash photography. He used the approach himself as a staff photographer on his first job decades ago for a business publication.

"We did every single shot on a blow-away light," Hobby said. "It gave us a visual style and consistency, and we could shoot wide range of subjects. But even as a kid right out of college in 1988 I didn't think this was new...There is no defending it on any level."

Indeed, it's not hard to find an abundance of tutorials for the technique on the Internet. There's plenty of jeering and fretting about the patent on sites like forums and DP Review, an Amazon subsidiary, too. "I would think one could find prior art that would bring the validity of the patent into question," said Robert Brunelli, an attorney with Sheridan Ross. Prior art refers to examples of the technique known before the patent application was filed -- November 2011 in Amazon's case.

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment.

The technique is very specific about the placement of lights and other equipment. That should ease the minds of any photographers worried about a patent suit, Brunelli said, because they could sidestep liability by fiddling with the photography formula.

Although Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos has said he's worried that patent suits could stifle innovation -- the exact opposite effect that the patent system was intended to have -- Amazon has been in the thick of patent controversies before. The notable case is the controversial one-click purchasing patent, No. 5,960,411, on which Bezos himself is listed as one of the inventors. The patent stands in the US but was rejected in the European Union as "obvious to a skilled person."

In the case of the studio photography patent, Hobby thinks Amazon can point to one accomplishment.

"Congratulations, Amazon," Hobby said. "You managed to do what 1,000 tech writers couldn't do: perfectly and clearly explain how insane the patent process is."