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Apple Patent App Seeks to Disable iPhone Video Recorder


Written by Gene Quinn
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Patent Attorney, Reg. No. 44,294
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: June 17, 2011 @ 9:12 pm
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Earlier this month an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) patent application published. This in and of itself isn’t news, but the contents of the innovation disclosed is indeed noteworthy. This particular Apple patent application, US Patent Application No. 20110128384, covers a method of disabling video capture in a cell phone or similar device; namely in the Apple iPhone.

Such an innovation would make it impossible to capture video or pictures at live events where cameras and video recorders are prohibited, such as at live entertainment venues.  Such an innovation would no doubt be to the liking of those who engage in live performances and don’t prefer to have videos taken and ultimately posted to the Internet.  It wouldn’t, however, be an innovation that would be particularly interesting to the consuming public though, so whether Apple would ever implement these features remains an open question.

According to the recently published patent application, the invention is “directed to systems and methods for receiving infrared data with a camera designed to detect images based on visible light.”   The image processing circuitry implemented in the invention can determine whether each image detected by the camera includes an infrared signal with encoded data.  In the situation where the device determines that an image includes an infrared signal with encoded data, the circuitry can route at least a portion of the image to circuitry that will decode the encoded data. If the image processing circuitry determines that an image does not include an infrared signal with encoded data, the circuitry may route the image to either a display or to storage.

In one, rather non-objectionable implementation of the invention, the device described in the patent application can display information to a user. More specifically, as shown in Figure 4 in the application, the screen can display information relating to what is being viewed. Information can be overlaid on a picture captured by device or a live video stream captured by device. Information can be provided adjacent to representation so that a user can associate the information with object.

This is accomplished by the electronic device receiving infrared signals and decoding the data received in those infrared signals. An infrared emitter could be located near an object and generate infrared signals with encoded data that includes information about that object. Upon decoding the information contained in the infrared signals the desired information can be displayed. Such an innovation would have obvious uses in museums, for example.

But certain embodiments of the invention would not make the electronic device more functional, but rather would make it less functional. For example, depending upon the received infrared data the electronic device might become disabled. In this instance an infrared emitter can be located in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited, and the emitter could generate infrared signals with encoded data that includes commands to disable the recording functions of devices. An electronic device can then receive the infrared signals, decode the data and temporarily disable the device’s recording function based on the command. This implementation would be useful in concert settings, for example, or in other live entertainment settings.

The patent application explains, in part:

[T]he device can temporarily disable its record function for a period of time after receiving the command (e.g., 30 seconds or 30 minutes). After the device’s record function is disabled, the device may not be able to store images detected by the device. In some embodiments, after the device’s record function is disabled, the device may not be able to even display images detected by the device… In some embodiments, a device may even delete one or more of the most recently stored images… when disabling the device’s record function.

Obviously, the device that is disabled would not be a feature that the consuming public would find attractive, so what is Apple thinking?  If Apple is indeed going to implement this unique and rather non-desirable feature set it would seem to be beneficial to venues and performers wishing to prohibit recording and pictures.  Perhaps the thought here is to prevent the easy video capture and uploading to You-Tube and similar websites.  Whatever the case may be, it is not normally the best idea to offer features that the end user will characterize as a “bug” or undesirable.

Apple doesn’t have to worry about being an infringer under the copyright laws of the United States even if someone uses an Apple device to make an unauthorized recording or capture unauthorized images.  That is because there are so-called substantial non-infinging uses capable for the iPhone, for example.  So why then would Apple pursue disabling technology and put the keys to your iPhone in the hands of a third party who can disable certain functionality at will without your permission?  That is a good question indeed.

So have the Apple elite collectively lost their minds?  You can never discount that as a possibility whenever a corporation seems to be about to do something truly ridiculous.  But perhaps they just reached a deal or understanding with content creators.   Notwithstanding the possibility of a covert deal or hubris run amok, it is also appropriate to recognize that at times some companies will patent a feature set they have no desire to implement.  They file a patent application on the feature set, ultimately obtaining a patent covering the feature set, so as to prevent others from patenting the same or similar feature set.  In this regard, from time to time you will see open access groups obtain patents on things that make you scratch your head, and which seem contrary to their purpose.  The goal is to prevent others from engaging in that specified behavior, which they can now prohibit thanks to the patent.

Time will tell whether Apple does incorporate a disable functionality to its iPhone or similar products.  If you ask me that sort of corporate control of a device would strike users as needlessly paternalistic and hardly acceptable.  If they do you can bet there will be those who will create cheat codes to circumvent the disabling features, and there will be litigation surrounding such circumvention.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves no doubt.

For now the thought of Apple giving the keys to disable phone functionality to third parties is noteworthy as bizarre.  If it actually becomes implemented it will be noteworthy because it is stupid.  Such a disable feature strikes me as unacceptable downstream control of a multi-functional device that cease to be multi-functional at the election of someone not privy to the purchase and sale of the device or associated service.

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Posted in: Apple, Companies We Follow, Gene Quinn, IP News, IPWatchdog.com Articles, Patents, Technology & Innovation

About the Author

is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.

 

11 comments
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  1. Me thinks this feature is aimed at making iPhones more workable for large corporate users. Another chip away at the sinking RIM ship.

  2. It good to see that Mr. Quinn recognizes that disabling the iPhone is stupid and would be bizarre. However, it is unfortunate that Mr. Quinn has not raised the rights of the consumer. Apple should have no right to disable a product that the consumer has bought. Furthermore, there is a First Amendment (free speech) application too. It seems that corporations are increasingly making “law” through through these onerous application of technology and repulsive Terms of Service. Seems that the consumer no longer has a private property ownership right to the products that they buy.

  3. I guess it is another way for Apple to make money. This time from the venue/events. They sell venue/events the appropriate codes which allow them to disable their audience’s recording abilities. Very smart. They will have created an income source from one that previously did not exist. Events/venues I’m sure would appreciate this technology, it will also allow them to have exclusive footage of their events, which they can then on-sell to whom ever is interested, eg. the audience!

  4. Steve R says: “Apple should have no right to disable a product that the consumer has bought.”

    That would be true if Apple were to disable phones previously purchased. If users purchase a phone knowing that Apple has given the ability to disable features to third-parties that is a different matter entirely. So it would seem you have made an assumption to which there is no evidence at this point.

    Steve R also says: ” Furthermore, there is a First Amendment (free speech) application too.”

    Simply stated, there is no First Amendment issue. The First Amendment is a prohibition against the government, not a prohibition against individuals or private corporations. The government cannot suppress free speech.

    It is also important to understand that there is no freedom to engage in copyright violations, which seems really what this Apple technology is all about. It is an unfortunate technology that corporations like Apple seem compelled to pursue due to rampant copyright infringement.

  5. Seeing the trend of governments to at the same time extend their electronic surveillance of their citizens and punish citizens for legal surveillance of them, the widespread implementation of this feature would be troubling. Just imagine the police sending such a signal while beating up Rodney King!

  6. This technology strikes me as something that Apple would likely implement only if Federal Law requires it. It is a tried and true business strategy (e.g., in the auto industry) to obtain a patent on a safety feature and then lobby the govermnemnt to make it mandatory, so you then control the market via the issued patent. This feature looks like the same sort of thing.

  7. The larger target of the “disable” feature might be movie piracy as many pirates videotape films in movie theaters for easy upload.

  8. The biggest problem with this invention is that it would be trivially easy to disable with a simple IR filter.

  9. This patent by Apple dovetails nicely with the anti-counterfeiting and piracy legislation recently passed by Congress. It goes to show you just how powerful the entertainment industry is as a lobbying organization.
    http://www.generalpatent.com/media/videos/general-patent-corporation-helps-patent-owners-enforce-their-ip-rights

  10. “The biggest problem with this invention is that it would be trivially easy to disable with a simple IR filter.”

    Maybe you should get a patent on that. :-)

  11. When it comes to the development of new technology it is important to think of the possible future implications of said technology. With the ability to send IR signals to disable certain features of a cellular device the possibilities could be more severe than anticipated. Yes, this hardware would be very useful for Apple to create new revenue from an otherwise closed market by selling the information to parties that desire strict confidentiality due to the possibility of corporate espionage or even event planners who wish to have exclusive publishing of their events. In which case, I doubt that other phone designers would be willing to pay to have this technology installed or even desire the implement this into their new designs. That would just be foolish. I’m sure droid engineers would be more than happy to allow apple to exclusively use this handicap for their devices. Consumers who use their devices to record shows, events, etc. would be forced to explore other options for devices other than apple products. However if this technology were used for a different purpose it could prove to be very useful for the interested party buying the access to these devices. For example, if a person was a target for investigation, wanted for detainment, wanted for questioning, or had classified or sensitive information, a signal could be sent to disable the user’s device to a) restrict their communication with outside sources b) keep the user from attaining assistance from others or even assistance from the web, gps, voice, or text. or c) use the user’s device against them by relaying position, frequently used locations, contacts, and anything the user may not want seen by the pursuing party. The user’s device would then be harmful to the user and used as an asset in silencing, information gathering, and possible collection of the user. If the device can be remotely “reprogrammed” through IR the user may not even be aware that their device has been compromised. This could allow for illegal seizures of information or illegal action against the user. When an idea is made into a tangible object it is out of our control and can be abused and most likely eventually will be abuse by someone not meant to or desired to have that said object or in this case technology. I realize that I am thinking way ahead and against the intended usage of such a product but that is our responsibility to try to see what damage something can cause before we blindly bring it into being.