Apple has been much maligned in the press recently for filing a patent application covering a camera system with infrared technology that could, among other things, allow the recording functionality to be shut off by a third party. For example, in its application, Apple shows how the technology could be used to "prevent illegal image capturing" at a rock concert.
To us, this sounds like a familiar story: one where the content industry pressures technology companies—or, Congress—to limit fans’ ability to access and share their content, even when that sharing is perfectly legal. As we’ve said before, it’s a real shame when the promise of innovation is stifled by Hollywood’s demands.
But this time, there is an even more real threat. The availability of mobile phones with video capability has allowed activists around the world the ability to capture and disseminate important footage, often in the absence of news reporting. If a government were to gain access to and utilize Apple’s technology, the result could mean disastrous consequences.
Of course, in merely prosecuting a patent application, Apple has not signaled any concrete plans to actually use this technology. And the technology does promise some exciting features, too, like allowing users to take a photo of an object (say, an item in a store or exhibit in a museum) and get instant information on that object, and allowing for watermarking (which would make it easy to tag all photos and video from a certain timeframe as, say, “Miami 2011”).
To be clear, we should not fear this one patent application, but rather the larger technology that may be captured by governments and implemented in widespread standards that could have serious consequences, for example, by shutting down citizens’ ability to capture and disseminate video. The technology in this patent just may be a harbinger of that, and—for that reason—we will continue to watch it closely.