Let’s get this straight — I love America. It’s a great place; brash, confident, a can-do country. If a British business fails, the humiliation and disgrace is a permanent stain. If an American business fails, they pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again. And some of my best friends are Americans, as you’d expect me to say.

In fact it was my American friend Martha Moran who alerted me to this extraordinary story, an unprecedented combination (to my mind) of ignorance, hubris, licit connivance and venality.

Photographer Udi Tirosh posted this blog. It describes how the US Patent & Trademark Office has awarded a patent to Amazon for photographing things against a white background. That’s right — a patent on what we call cut-outs. The imagery that made Dorling Kindersley books famous around the world.

How can they get away with this? What effect will it have? The darker side of American business confidence also lies in this “let’s try it on” attitude. And all too often the American establishment colludes.

There’s much not to like about America. Deranged gun laws. The Albuquerque Police Department, who have shot dead 55 people since 2010. The US legal system. The $67 million claimed by a judge for a lost pair of trousers. Companies who attempt to copyright phrases in the English language. Bridgeman Art Library‘s case against Corel for nicking their images — Bridgeman was British, Corel won. The publishers of He’s So Fine sued George Harrison‘s Harrisongs for plagiarism with My Sweet Lord, which had one chord change in common. Harrison lost. The catastrophic Gulf oil spill caused by an American subsidiary of the British firm BP — BP was given a swingeing, humungous fine and ordered to pay billions of dollars of compensation, sometimes to people living a couple of hundred miles inland.

Every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom spends £70 a year with Amazon. It provides an amazing selection and a terrific service. Of course we buy from Amazon SARL in Luxembourg, not from Amazon.co.uk, which merely takes our order in the UK, locates the product in the UK and posts it out to us in the UK from within the UK.

In the past three years Amazon has generated sales of more than £7.6 billion in the UK, without paying any corporation tax on the profits from those sales. They paid just £4.2 million in tax in 2013, 0.1% of their UK revenues.

And you know why? Because their tax advisors are smarter than our taxmen and our government. Amazon is doing nothing wrong. We are missing out because of the incompetence of our legislators and HMRC.

And can Dorling Kindersley now expect Amazon to come knocking?

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32 Responses to “Amazon Patents The Photographic Studio”

  1. Alan Morrison says:

    I take issue with your statement that Amazon have done nothing wrong. They have done nothing illegal with respect to their tax arrangements, however it is morally wrong to conduct so much business in a number of countries and then channel the profits generated through the country with the lowest rate of corporation tax.
    It is wrong that I as a modestly paid individual pay more tax than a business generating millions of pounds in profit.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      This highlights the difference between Agency: as in they didn’t know what they were doing — and Morality: as in they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. Amazon are doing everything they can to avoid paying taxes without actually breaking our inadequate laws. They know what they are doing, and Morality does not enter their calculations.

      And Alan, if you paid more than £4.2 million in tax last year, how about lunch some time soon?

  2. Gerald says:

    Is DK any better than amazon? They print all of their books in China. Quite a disgrace

  3. Ha! Well Amazon are in trouble now. I patented the stick man as an illustrative device years ago.

  4. Mark says:

    Hardly surprising that Amazon’s tax advisors are smarter than our taxmen… my chair is smarter than most of our taxmen…

  5. Alex Ramsay says:

    They’ve more money than sense, some might say – but I believe the idea of patenting their version of this common technique with such precision is to prevent ex-employees setting up their own look-alikes of the company website. Seems bonkers to me, but then I’m not a patents lawyer. But I hardly think they’re going to sue every packshot studio in the world!

  6. Lois Bryan says:

    Gwyn, I’m an American (British heritage, but we have to reach back to the 1700s to find it) and I’m as appalled and furious and ashamed as you are. And oh by the way, I don’t even own a studio!!! Still … this kind of nonsense canNOT go unnoticed. I’ve been tweeting my fingers off since yesterday, left a few snarky comments on the Patent Office’s FaceBook Page and … in general … fumed in my coffee cup all day long. (Amazon apparently does not have a FaceBook Page or I’d be griping at them as well … but I’ll find a way to make my voice heard).

    I am SO glad you wrote this note … we have to wake up the photography world and NOT let Amazon and the US Patent office get away with SHAMEFUL nonsense!!!!!

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Thank you Lois! We love you really, and we Brits too have our darker side (remember that list of the only 23 countries in the world that Britain HASN’T invaded?)

      It’s just that Americans are less embarrassed by naked venality. Which shocks us.

      • Lois Bryan says:

        There’s talk in certain circles that Amazon is getting ready to launch a “photography studio in a box” product, in this particular described setup, and that they’re getting out ahead to patent the design before it goes on the market. Sorry … but that’s no excuse as far as I’m concerned. Amazon didn’t invent it and they have no business claiming any rights to it whatsoever. This is nonsense and sets a very dangerous precedent.

  7. Martin Billings says:

    I’ve been wise to the USA for about thirty years. I stopped visiting the country, would never step onto its territory and remain a stalwart against US fast food and all things American. To say I was anti-American would be putting in mildly. Taxation and all that is quite another thing. Yes clever accountants from wherever will gain satisfaction from retaining hard-earned cash – any of us would do the same.

    My stance is an individual thing. I don’t care what others do. I boycott wherever possible anything from the USA, preferring to buy from other sources. I love to enhance Americans visiting the UK (I live in the wonderful Cotswolds) to extend visits to English places to encourage additional spending of the US dollar. Some years ago while conversing with visiting Americans, one of the visitors simply asked when the Cotwolds opened. I suspect he thought it was a theme park or something. Bless. The Americans are so wonderfully ignorant (on the whole) about anything outside their continent.

    Brash,confident and a can-do country? Bollocks!

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      I am certainly not anti-American but even if I were, I would still class them as a can-do country, unlike say Saudi Arabia or Swaziland. And who can deny they are brash and confident? They’re like boisterous, hulking teenagers.

  8. John Strain says:

    Wow! There’s a thing. Someone will patent air soon – or have they already done it?.

  9. Oh, the mental anguish of trouser loss. At least the judge lost his job as well as his suit (pun fully intended)! http://news.legalexaminer.com/three-strikes-for-judge-fancy-pants.aspx?googleid=28340

    Amazon are likely just trying to prevent former employees using ‘their’ system, but I’ll grant you, it’s bizarre in the extreme.

  10. GP van der Walt says:

    Call for a boycot

  11. Peter says:

    I don’t know anything about US patents, but in the UK it wouldn’t legally be possible to patent this anyway according to the IPO’s own criteria:

    http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/patent/p-applying/p-before/p-requirements.htm

  12. mark says:

    only in America as we kiwis say (and many others i’m picking)

    • Barry Hughes says:

      So, following the George Harrison case logic (?!), if I place one lamp one centimetre differently, or use a different angle then I’m not clashing with the patent?

      • Gwyn Headley says:

        One line: “Your invention must not be obvious to someone with a good knowledge of the subject.”

        The US Patent Officer probably had to ask what a camera was.

  13. Michael Keene says:

    Well I have found it impossible to get paid for my books from Amazon as an Author…So hard know what to believe…maybe you haven’t your ear to the ground too much.
    Mike Herring [Author Michael Keene

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Amazon has paid us, but they deduct tax as we don’t have an American tax exemption certificate. Rather droll when you consider their tax situation in Europe.

  14. marie-claire lander says:

    There is not much to like about your blog… Whine, whine, whine. I live in America, and there is a lot to like about America, and things that are not so good. But please, can’t you look on the bright side for once? I take it you love the shade, step out and see the sunny side of life. You might even get to like it.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      I agree with you whole-heartedly, Marie-Claire — “there is a lot to like about America, and things that are not so good.”

      Show me one successful newspaper, news show, or any news media that majors on the sunny side of life. Good news isn’t news. People like to get hot under the collar, and Amazon trying to grab the rights for something they never began to get close to creating is a shining example of something that isn’t so good in your country.

      Are you defending Amazon?