May 01, 2014

A Patent History of Filmmaking

Gene Quinn

©2014. Published in Landslide, Vol. 6, No. 5, May/June 2014, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

The history of film is a long one that, by some accounts, extends as far back as the early 1700s to the discovery by German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze that silver salts react to light exposure by becoming darker in color.1 By the late 1800s, celluloid film had appeared, and the ability to record motion pictures through a camera had become a reality. In 1889, George Eastman perfected the first commercial transparent roll film, one year after beginning to use the name “Kodak” to market his cameras.2 Eastman’s flexible film advancement made it possible for Thomas Edison to develop his 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.”3 Edison filed a patent application on the Kinetoscope on August 24, 1891, and the patent ultimately issued on August 31, 1897.4

Over the years, the industry has seen some incredible innovations, including 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 (USPTO). 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—from feeding celluloid film through a recording device to writing video data digitally to using 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

Strips of film, which are run through a movie projector, have a series of perforations running along the length of the filmstrip.5 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.

The patent, which issued in November 1938 by the USPTO to the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York, protects a system for which these perforations had been invented.6 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 claw feed system provided a vast improvement over earlier systems because of the ability it has to keep the film aligned while traveling across an aperture on a motion picture camera.

Sound Camera

By the 1940s, sound recording technology for film had existed for nearly 20 years.7 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.8 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 explained in the patent, the sound recording methods previously used in the industry resulted in a lot of wasted film because of distorted sound recordings created when starting a motion picture camera. These distortions would be produced by the sound drum, which took some time to reach operational speed while the film was traveling across the drum at its own pace.

This 1941 patent, also issued by the USPTO to Eastman Kodak, protects 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 drive alone and connected to the film feed mechanism only after the drum has reached the speed required for normal sound recording. Once connected to the film feeder, the sound drum is disconnected from the drive so that only the film is turning the sound drum.

Motion Picture Camera with Mechanism for Making Exposures with Lap Dissolve

The “Background of the Invention” 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.9 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 Ag of Leverkusen, protects the creation of a motion picture camera with even more options for lap dissolves. Although the value of this patent is no doubt hampered by the length of the claim 1 section,10 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

Another major innovation milestone was achieved with the ability for filmmakers to create compelling scenes for motion pictures using 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, cameras became mounted on vertical posts and rotated around the scene in a fixed orientation.11 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.12

The patent for a moving camera system utilizing rail mounts was issued by the USPTO in October 1987 to a trio from California: Murrell and Mary Howell of Huntington Beach, and Michael Hofstein of Sherman Oaks.13 This system allows a camera to be mounted to a vehicle traveling on a rail system and to 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.

The camera system covered in this particular patent includes a wheeled rail car with a running gear connected to a chassis containing a movable panning head on the top. The panning head has a motion picture camera mounted thereon. The rail car is self-propelled, and the head rotatability tilts up and down and also pans 360 degrees. The car is 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 is positioned remotely from the tracks and provides control for propulsion and positioning of the panning head, as well as control of the camera. The system also includes a television monitor that receives signals from the camera. This allows the operator to have some visual indication of the scene viewed by the camera.

Motion Picture Recording Device Using Digital, Computer-Readable Non-Linear Media

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 existed in the 1990s, both for movies and broadcast television, the process still required motion pictures to be recorded on film.14

In 2009, Avid Technology of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, was awarded a patent, which they had filed some 12 years earlier in 1997.15 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 videotape 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 videotape, 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 television news reporting crew would go to a location, record an event and segment, rewind 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 videotape, there could easily be 30-minute delays between completion of the recording and the time an edited version of the segment could be broadcast on television. 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 videotape 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 videotape, or for digitization of the 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

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.16 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.17 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 flowcharts because this is a software patent.18 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 50–60 percent of all patent applications filed.19 If you have taken the time to look around you at the world in which we live, it is hardly surprising that software is an integral piece of the majority of modern-day innovations. 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.


This brief history of filmmaking through the eyes of the USPTO 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 progressed from soundless film in the early 1900s to talking motion pictures, or “speakies,” by 1922.20 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. 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.


1. The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography 6 (Leslie Stroebel & Richard Zakia eds., 3d ed. 1993).

2. History of Kodak: 1878–1929, Kodak, (last visited Mar. 4, 2014).

3. History of Edison Motion Pictures: Origins of Motion Pictures—the Kinetoscope, Libr. of Congress, (last visited Mar. 4, 2014).

4. U.S. Patent No. 589,168 (filed Aug. 24, 1891).

5. Film Perforations, Wikipedia, (last modified Feb. 13, 2014).

6. U.S. Patent No. 2,136,930 (filed Sept. 10, 1935).

7. Sound Film, Wikipedia, (last modified Feb. 14, 2014).

8. U.S. Patent No. 2,238,497 (filed Oct. 14, 1939).

9. U.S. Patent No. 3,879,115 (filed Feb. 16, 1973).

10. 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. v. Hilton Davis Chem. Co., 520 U.S. 17 (1997); Read Corp. v. Portec, Inc., 970 F.2d 816, 821 (Fed. Cir. 1992).

11. See, e.g., U.S. Patent No. 4,236,795 (filed Jan. 18, 1979) (issued Dec. 2, 1980).

12. See, e.g., U.S. Patent No. 4,514,068 (filed Aug. 5, 1983) (issued Apr. 30, 1985).

13. U.S. Patent No. 4,699,484 (filed Nov. 15, 1985).

14. See, e.g., U.S. Patent No. 4,935,816 (filed June 23, 1989) (issued June 19, 1990); U.S. Patent No. 5,390,028 (filed Mar. 27, 1992) (issued Feb. 14, 1995).

15. U.S. Patent No. 7,623,754 (filed Sept. 18, 1997).

16. Citizen Journalism, Wikipedia, (last modified Feb. 3, 2014).

17. History of Blogging, Wikipedia, (last modified Feb. 25, 2014).

18. U.S. Patent No. 8,422,852 (filed Apr. 9, 2010).

19. U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-13-465, Intellectual Property: Assessing Factors That Affect Patent Infringement Litigation Could Help Improve Patent Quality 12–13 (2013), available at (“By 2011 patents related to software made up more than half of all issued patents.”).

20. Radio Talking Pictures, Am. Cinematographer, Apr. 1, 1922, available at

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a U.S. patent attorney and the founder of He is a principal lecturer in the PLI patent bar review course and is also with the firm of Zies, Widerman & Malek, where his practice is primarily devoted to software and electronic devices.