A Patent History of Filmmaking

NOTE: A version of this article was originally published by the ABA in May/June 2014 issue of LANDSLIDE, a publication of the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law. 

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The history of filmmaking is a long one that, by some accounts, extends as far back as the early 1700s and the discovery by German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze that silver salts react to light exposure by becoming darker in color.[i] By the late 1800s, celluloid film had appeared and the ability to record motion pictures through a camera had become a reality. Indeed, it was none other than George Eastman, who in 1889 perfected the first commercial transparent roll film, one year after the name “Kodak” first began to be used to market his cameras.[ii] It was the Eastman flexible film advancement that made it possible for the development of Thomas Edison’s motion picture camera in 1891. Edison called his first generation picture camera a “Kinetoscope,” after the Greek words “kineto,” which means “movement,” and “scopos,” which means “to watch.”[iii] Edison filed a patent application on the Kinetoscope on August 24, 1891, and the patent ultimately issued on August 31, 1897.[iv]

Over the years, the industry has seen some incredible innovations that include improvements to color exposures, sound recording and the current-day transition to digital recording. The glittering lights of Hollywood and other filmmaking scenes throughout the world have risen on the backs of these developments. Many of these film innovations have been subject to patent protection, with countless patent applications being filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has granted many protections to film innovators over the years. A quick survey of patents granted since the earliest days of film shows that over the course of less than a century film and motion pictures have gone through some immense changes. A review of patented film technologies took us on a journey from feeding celluloid film through a recording device to writing video data digitally to an optical disk for easier computer editing. What follows are some of the patented inventions that most captured my attention and imagination.

 

Claw Feed Mechanism for Motion Picture Apparatus
U.S. Patent No 2,136,930 

Strips of film, which are run through a movie projector, have a series of perforations running along the length of the filmstrip.[v] On any iconic image or picture of a reel of film, or even just a short strip, these perforations are easy to spot running alongside the central piece of film on which an image is recorded.

This patent, which issued in November 1938 by the U.S. Patent Office to the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, NY, protects a system for which these perforations had been invented. This patent describes a system of guiding film through either a motion picture camera or a projector using a claw feed mechanism.

The mechanism engages the film by inserting a claw member through the perforations in the film. Generally speaking, at least two claws, one on either side of the filmstrip, engage the film at any one time. The patent also describes double-tined claw members in certain embodiments. This system provided a vast improvement over earlier systems because of the ability that this claw feed system has to keep the film aligned while traveling across an aperture on a motion picture camera.

[Varsity-1]

 

Sound Camera
U.S. Patent No. 2,238,497 

By the 1940s, sound recording technology for film had existed for nearly twenty (20) years.[vi] As the patent itself explains, in order to secure true reproductions of sound on a filmstrip it is essential that the filmstrip be moved at a substantially constant and uniform lineal speed past the sound recording aperture. To obtain the speed control necessary to achieve true reproductions of sound it was commonplace to mount a flywheel onto the sound drum shaft. As a result, sound could then be recorded onto a filmstrip while images were being recorded.

As the patent explains the problems with the prior art, it is explained that the sound recording methods previously used in the industry created a lot of wasted film because of distorted sound recordings created when starting a motion picture camera. These distortions would be created by the sound drum, which took some time to reach operational speed while the film is traveling across the drum at its own pace.

This patent from 1941, also issued by the U.S. Patent Office to Eastman Kodak, protected a system of separating the sound drum’s start process so as to prevent the waste of film. The sound drum is initiated by the camera and connected to the film feed mechanism once the drum has reached the speed required for normal sound recording. Once connected to the film feeder, the speed drum is disconnected from the drive so that only the film is turning the sound drum.

 

Motion Picture Camera w/ Mechanism for Making Exposures w/ Lap Dissolve
U.S. Patent No. 3,879,115 

The Background of the Invention in this patent explains that scene dissolves and overlaps are among the earliest film editing effects in use by filmmakers, far before the days of digital animation and computer-generated imagery (CGI) effects. By the 1970s, motion picture cameras were being designed that had mechanisms through which a director or editor could set up an automatic dissolve for the overlapping of scenes. These effects, known as lap dissolves, could fade-out a scene to reveal the following one, or fade-in a second scene over one that had finished.

This particular patent, issued in April 1975 to the German corporation Agfa-Gevaert Aktiengesellschaft of Leverkusen, protects the creation of a motion picture camera with even more options for lap dissolves. Although the value of this patent was no doubt hampered by the length of the Claim 1 section,[vii] it represents important advances in film technology through editing effects. This versatile camera increases the ease with which a filmmaker can apply a fade-out or fade-in effect, or even overlap the two effects for a better scene transition.

 

Rail Mounted Camera System
U.S. Patent No. 4,699,484 

Another major innovation milestone was achieved with the ability for filmmakers to create compelling scenes for motion pictures include portable or moving camera systems. Instead of fixing the shot in one location and either zooming in or out, entire landscapes can be filmed when the camera isn’t stationary. By the early 1980s, it cameras became mounted on vertical posts and rotated around the scene in a fixed orientation. [viii] By the mid-1980s, these systems typically involved either affixing the camera to a surface that was capable of moving or mounting the camera in a moving vehicle.[ix]

This patent for a moving camera system utilizing rail mounts was issued by the U.S. Patent Office in October 1987 to a trio from California: Murrell and Mary Howell of Huntington Beach, as well as Michael Hofstein of Sherman Oaks. This system allows a camera to be mounted to a vehicle traveling on a rail system and be operated by remote control from a distant location. The rail vehicle is able to adjust for the camera and allow stable panning left to right or tilt up and down while the camera is being operated through a remote control.

The camera system covered in this particular patent included a wheeled rail car with a running gear connected to a chassis containing a movable panning head on the top. The panning head had a motion picture camera mounted thereon. The rail car was self-propelled and the head rotatability tilted up and down and also panned 360 degrees. The car was installed on a track consisting of rails connected together with ties, each rail having a power strip supplying electrical energy to the car through a set of wipers. An electrical control system was positioned remotely from the tracks and provided control for propulsion and positioning of the panning head, as well as control of the camera. The system also included a television monitor that received signals from the camera. This allowed the operator to have some visual indication of the scene viewed by the camera.

[Varsity-2]

 

Motion Picture Recording Device Using Digital, Computer-Readable Non-Linear Media
U.S. Patent No. 7,623,754

The crossover to digital recording from traditional film has been one of the most recognizable trends over the past few decades. Recording a video through digital means is much more cost-effective because large reels of film are not required, which in turn cuts down on material and transportation costs. Although digital editing had existed by the 1990s, both for movies and broadcast television, the process still required motion pictures to be recorded on film.[x]

In 2009, Avid Technology of Tewksbury, MA, was awarded a patent, which they had filed some 12 years earlier in 1997. This patent covered a method of recording video digitally to a magnetic or optical disk capable of recording random-access memory. As the patent description states, this innovation removes the need to rewind tape after filming or digitizing tape, both of which can provide costly delays in the editing process.

The patent explained the problem they were trying to solve by pointing out that the real, major disadvantage of BETA and VHS format recordings is that these types of recordings only allow linear access to a given point on the video tape, meaning that you have to go through tape forward or backward to get to the point where you have access to the desired scene. This was particularly, although not exclusively, problematic for television broadcast news. A typical TV news reporting crew would go to a location, record an event and segment, rewind backward to get to where the segment started and then transmit the segment back to the news station. Because of the delays caused by rewinding, playback and transmission of the recorded segment from a video tape there could easily be thirty (30) minute delays between completion of the recording and the time an edited version of the segment could be broadcast on TV. This didn’t allow for up to the minute delivery of breaking news in an efficient manner.

This particular invention overcame the problems associated with linear access by replacing the analog video tape with a digital, computer-readable and writable random-access recording medium, such as an optical disk. Additionally, by using the invention broadcast quality video could be provided by a compressed stream of digital motion picture information at rates of four megabytes per second (4 Mbps).

By providing a portable video recorder that recorded directly onto a digital, computer-readable and writable random-access medium, there was no longer any need for delays due to rewinding the tape, or for digitization of the video tape. With the advantages of non-linear recording and non-linear editing, further in combination with a non-linear broadcast system, the time to broadcast of a news event was dramatically reduced.

 

Automated Story Generation
U.S. Patent No. 8,422,852

Perhaps one of the most exciting things brought about by recent technological advances is that everyday people can now meaningfully participate in the entertainment and news industry like never before. [xi] The advent of content management systems, such as WordPress, have made it possible for individuals to focus on creating content for publication rather than spending large amounts of time dealing with technological issues associated with maintaining a vibrant web presence.[xii] At the dawn of modern day blogging many would snipe at “bloggers,” who admittedly were seen as gadflies that just had too much time on their hands. Today, however, some of the most influential commentators in a variety of substantive subject matter areas are bloggers, and virtually ever major (and minor) publication now runs a blog.

This revolution caused by the Internet, communications, and storage advances is not limited to blogging. It is now possible for individuals to make high-quality movies on their own as the price of quality video cameras continues to drop and ever better access to editing software becomes available.

Take for example, this particular patent, which was recently issued to Microsoft. There are no cool pictures associated with this particular patent. The illustrations in the patent are schematics and flow charts because this is a software patent. Anymore, the popular press will tell you that software patents are evil, but the truth is that software in some way, shape, or form now relates to 50% to 60% of all patent applications filed.[xiii] It is hardly surprising that software is an integral piece of the majority of modern day innovations if you have taken the time to look around you at the world in which we live. Automobiles, DVRs and smartphones all rely on software to provide functionality that we have come to take for granted. In fact, a computer in and of itself is little more than a paperweight without software.

This invention allows for automatic story production by the use of theme scripts to generate a quality, finished product with minimum user input or direction. A user chooses a predesigned theme script to be applied to automatically create a story utilizing personal images, videos and audio files already available to the user. The result is an automatic story with a particular look and feel. Metadata and feature information can be automatically gathered to personalize the generated story. A user can include additional information and/or alter any aspect of the generated story to further personalize the resultant finished product.

 

Conclusion

This brief history of filmmaking through the eyes of the United States Patent Office shows just how far technology has brought us. Just 125 years ago George Eastman’s work with flexible film lead to Thomas Edison inventing the motion picture camera. We have moved from soundless film in the early 1900s to talking motion pictures, or “speakies” by 1922.[xiv] We have evolved from a point where we needed to mechanically advance film frame by frame using a claw feeding mechanism described in the ‘930 patent, to a point where through the use of a software program created and patented by Microsoft (i.e., the ‘852 patent) we can practically create videos automatically with only minimal user involvement. While we may never get to the point where anyone would actually want to pay money in a movie theatre for an automatically created movie, we can certainly see how things have changed over time, and who knows how far things will continue to progress. As editing technology gets better and more efficient and cutting edge technology becomes more commonplace and less expensive, individuals are increasingly able to create what a decade ago could only be created by highly trained professionals using extremely sophisticated equipment.

 

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[i] Leslie Stroebel and Richard D. Zakia (1993). The Focal encyclopedia of photography (3rd ed.). Focal Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-240-51417-8.

[ii] Kodak website (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

[iii] Library of Congress, History of Edison Motion Pictures: Origins of Motion Pictures – the Kinetoscope, (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

[iv] United States Patent No. 589,168.

[v] Wikipedia, Film perforations, (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

[vi] Wikipedia, Sound film, (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

[vii] The longer a claim the less commercially useful the claim is because patent infringement is an all elements test, which means that in order to infringe each and every element and limitation in the claim must be found in the accused device. See Warner Jenkinson Co., Inv. V. Hilton Davis Chemical Co., 520 U.S. 17 (1997). See also Read Corp. v. Portec, Inc., 970 F.2d 816, 821, 23 USPQ2d 1426, 1431 (Fed.Cir.1992).

[viii] See, for example, U.S. Patent No. 4,236,795 (issued Dec. 2, 1980).

[ix] See, for example, U.S. Patent No. 4,514,068 (issued April 30, 1985).

[x] See, for example, U.S. Patent No. 4,935,816 (issued June 19, 1990) and U.S. Patent No. 5,390,028 (issued Feb. 14, 1995).

[xi] Wikipedia, Citizen journalism, (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

[xii] Wikipedia, History of blogging, (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

[xiii] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Intellectual Property: Assessing Factors That Affect Patent Infringement Litigation Could Help Improve Patent Quality, page 12-13 (August 2013), (last visited Jan. 22, 2014)(“By 2011 patents related to software made up more than half of all issued patents.”)

[xiv] The American Cinematographer, Radio Talking Pictures (April 1, 1922), (last visited Jan. 22, 2014).

 

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and President & CEO ofIPWatchdog, Inc.. Gene founded IPWatchdog.com in 1999. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and Of Counsel to the law firm of Berenato & White, LLC. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Gene Quinn

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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