Tech giant Apple has patented a way to prevent mobile devices from illegally recording a concert, film or other live event using an infrared sensor. The patent, filed in 2009, was published on June 2.
Used judiciously, the move could help the music and film industries stop rampant piracy. Used with abandon, the move could infuriate millions of fans who want to share a moment with friends and family.
Here's how it works: the infrared sensor is used to find a special signal in the air that tells the phone whether it's OK or not for a concertgoer to record using a phone, iPod or iPad's built-in camera. If not, the camera is disabled -- or alternately, it automatically imprints a watermark on the image.
It's a clever concept, putting the power back into the hands of content owners, who argue that fans are sharing footage online in violation of copyright law. (It's also a great way to lock down classified facilities.)
But the challenge is making sure it doesn't infringe on rights the other way around. Fair use law can be interpreted to allow sharing of low fidelity clips of limited duration, which do little harm to the sales of a professionally produced version of the event in question.
The question is whether Apple can find a technological middle ground, instead of merely turning off or on. And furthermore, avoid putting watermarks on legal media, such as photos taken of friends at the same venue.
Another potential application fraught with trouble could be to use the same technology to disable cell phones in movie theaters or other live performance venues. But that could be problematic very quickly, where an emergency responder (or other V.I.P.; say, a high-ranking government official) must leave for an emergency.
On the other hand, the tech can be used to improve an experience -- not just limit it. The infrared concept could be used in museums and other educational venues to transmit information to a device, locally.
"For example, pointing a phone’s camera at a piece of artwork in a museum could return information about the work and display it on the screen," Nick Bilton writes in the New York Times.