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.