May 16th, 2014

A Few Remarks about that Amazon Studio Arrangement Patent

[ETA: Thanks to Nate for catching the typo in the title]

Full disclosure: I own some AMZN. Also, former employee, very, very, very former.

I encountered the rabid mockery of Amazon's studio arrangement patent on Nate's excellent blog first, but there are about a million (<--hyperbole) stories out there all roughly saying exactly the same thing. Patent system evil. Amazon same. Prior art. "Every photography studio does this." It's just using a lot of complicated words.

Now, I am not a photographer, but I AM good at recognizing a bunch of people baa-ing along in a herd and this looked like a herd. So I read the patent several times and looked up a bunch of words that looked like they might have Technical Meaning. And then I started following links that purported to be examples of prior art and they rather conspicuously were not actually examples of prior art. In fact, the opposite of true.

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.)

Piet Mondrian did these really cool prints, that I liken to Dorfman's work: minimalist, but naturalistic. What Amazon did is the equivalent of recreating a Mondrian print using a paint program that lets you assemble squares and rectangles in primary colors, maybe some black lines. Dorfman and Mondrian are artists -- and the feeling really does come through. It's impossible to imagine an artist wanting to do what Amazon did. 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.

(My regular readers are sighing right about now, because they've remembered what I mean by "A Few Remarks". I am So Not Sorry.)

Finally, the commentariat drew analogies to the one click patent: you can't patent that, it's Obvious! To which I will note the following. While I had absolutely nothing to do with it, I was around when that all happened, and I remember listening to the engineers in question complain about El Jefe's obsession with one-click and why it was unnecessary and blah blah bleeping blah. And then, of course, once it had been rolled out and the cash flowed even faster, we all had to grudgingly admit once again that The Boss Was Right.

That fucker was NOT obvious. And neither is the studio arrangement. But go ahead and keep laughing.

So will I.

ETA: Sample coverage of the patent, which commenters observing that it's all about eliminating post-processing, along with the usual array of baa-ing. Article includes link to the patent, a mention of the one-click patent, quotes from people who describe doing the "same thing" in the late 1980s, etc. Hobby is quoted as noting the consistency of style being desirable back then but nowhere in the article proper is the post-processing savings mentioned.

http://www.cnet.com/news/photographers-howl-at-amazon-patent-of-decades-old-idea/

If you actually read the patent, it makes very clear that it couldn't possibly have existed back in the 1980s.

"More specifically, embodiments of the disclosure can allow images and/or video of an item to be captured with a background that appears, when captured with an image capture device, as a near perfect white without the need for post-processing, retouching, or other imagine manipulation. In other words, images and video of items captured in the studio arrangement appear against a background that is equivalent to a white background when converted into a web color hexadecimal triplet corresponding to a true white...Additionally, embodiments of the disclosure also achieve an effect, without any image manipulation, of an object photographed and/or filmed in the studio arrangement that appears to be floating in front of the true white background with a reflection of the object appearing beneath the object."

The next paragraph addresses all the prior art complaints.

"Prior art solutions for achieving such a result for capturing images and/or video of objects set against a true white background include solutions that often involve some type of image retouching, post processing, "green screen" techniques, or other special effects and image and video manipulation to achieve the result of an object set against a true white background."

This disclosure DOES NOT include any of that. It is only a technique that gets that effect WITHOUT image manipulation.

My Worst Self is chortling madly over all the articles about this. There is no information asymmetry. There's just whether you bothered to read or not.

So I'm sitting here reading patents assigned to Amazon Technologies Inc

'Cause I'm thinking, wonder what else is in here? And the one about using an ereader to deliver tests was kind of entertaining.

It is less fun, now that I'm starting to recognize some of the names on the patents. Seriously did not know that guy went by his middle name and his first name is actually "Tate". Weird. Not sure whether to continue or not. Hmmmm.

ETA:

Hilarious! Check out this one: patent 6525747 "Method and system for conducting a discussion relating to an item"

He patented electronic fora at the item level (which Amazon implements). Who knew? Probably everyone but me. I wonder if they enforce this one?

ETA: I knew I should have stopped. A patent reminded me of someone I used to work with and I thought, oooh, wonder what he's up to? Died in an accident 10 years ago. Now I'm really sad. He was a really good human being.

http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20041207&slug=planecrash07m

ETA still more: Found the patent that underlies the Magic Shelf system over at Kiva. It was originally a Distrobot patent. Who knew?

ETA I really should go sleep. Udi Manber's name is on a patent over at Amazon -- I recognized it from an algorithms text when I was at the UW. "Method and System for Access to Electronic Images of Text Based on User Ownership of Corresponding Physical Text". 7174054

ETA: Any time now. 7433548 Another workflow patent for reflow vs non reflow content and automating whether or not you should have a human look at it.

And here's a look into the scanning and understanding process of getting an ebook out of a pbook: 7460710.
Along those same lines: 7466875

Figuring out which of your customers are early adopters and then paying attention to what they buy and promoting it. 7536322