Patent Strapcutters

After my first child was born, I found that taking pictures was a problem. The Canon S1 IS I'd purchased was a terrific model, but unwieldy when holding a baby. With kid number 2, the problem became worse. One can only juggle so many children while snapping the shutter. And there's the whole business of being fully in the moment with your kids, instead of constantly looking at them through a lens. I turned to crummy (later better) cameras in phones and little snapshotty digital cameras. I figured that when the kids were big enough to not need to be carried, I could graduate to a full DSLR with lenses.

Something happened along the way, however. I discovered James Duncan Davidson and Greg Koenig's Luma Loop. (I'll explain why it's not linked in a moment.) It was built like an adjustable bandolier with a freely traveling slider. The camera attaches through a detachable string loop at a hook in the camera's frame, just the way you'd add a normal neck or hand strap. When you're connected up, you put the strap over one shoulder and the camera can freely hang at your hip. Reach down to grab it, it slides up, take the shot, and release gently or just drop it.

I've known and liked James since I met him on a MacMania cruise in 2002, when he was still up to his neck in Java development. (James spent a few years at Sun, and was responsible for Tomcat and Ant, which means something if you, too, were up to your neck in Java.) He gave up all that programming glory for photography. He has a terrific eye, and you've likely seen his photographs of speakers at O'Reilly and other conferences. His work goes far beyond that to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the sights of rural Bangalore.

The author takes a picture of himself viewed through a stereoscopic high-resolution display system

James and Greg partnered to make the Luma Loop, James bringing what a shooter needs and Greg the industrial design experience. They sold the original Loop, then revised it to be more comfortable and have a better release mechanism (a one-handed metal push button), as well as adding a tripod screw mount for attaching the strap, and extending the line with a consumer-grade lighter-weight strap. (Disclosure: James knew I was a fan of the Loop, and sent me the updated version gratis and with no strings attached. I had planned to write about it, and disclose the gift in that writing.)

That's all come to an end for the moment. James and Greg have pulled the pro and consumer loops from the market out of fear of a patent lawsuit. The patent was granted November 1. The Luma Loop was not, of course, the only freely traveling bandolier style camera strap, and the folks at Black Rapid had a version on the market years before Luma Labs. There are other competitors as well. Black Rapid filed for a patent in 2007 to cover key aspects of a free-sliding sling. James said he and his firm's lawyers reviewed the prior art and the patent filing, and thought it highly unlikely it would be granted. James provides examples in a blog post dating back to 1885 of similar attachment slings.

In an interview, James declined to be more specific about his contacts with Black Rapid. He said he became aware a few days after the patent was granted that it was issued, and he and Greg had to make a decision immediately about a course of action. Even without an injunction or lawsuit in front of them, and with a firm belief that the patent's claims wouldn't withstand a re-examination in light of the introduction of more prior art, selling the product after becoming aware of the patent would be willing infringement, he said. "The risk equation changes."

As a small firm that outsources pretty much everything but design and marketing, including using a Portland-area sewing firm that puts together their straps, James said, "to do any legal action would have consumed the company." It would cost at a minimum many thousands of dollars to pursue a patent re-examination with no assurance of the outcome, no matter how strong James's stance on prior art, during which time selling product would increase the risk to which the firm were exposed.

Now let me switch perspective a bit. Black Rapid didn't respond to a request via email to its press address for comment. I disclosed in that email that James and I were friendly, that I was a fan of the Luma Loop, and that I had received promotional product. I can understand the lack of a reply to such an email, but it would be unfair of me to not present the owners with an opportunity to discuss their positions. Also lawyers often advise those who haven't taken action in a given realm to keep their mouths shut to forestall shutting down avenues that may be used. (Assuming they read this story, I hope they weigh in via the comments.)

Thus let me be scrupulously evenhanded. This isn't a typical patent-troll story of the kind we read about seemingly every day in which a firm that makes nothing of its own except trouble for others acquires or creates business-method patents—ones that describe a way of doing something rather than the creation of an actual physical product or process. Those deemed to be in violation may have lawsuits filed without any notice, which is perfectly legal, or be sent dunning letters for licensing fees.

In the patent-troll universe, very little of value is created. An idea is turned into paperwork not stuff, and the inventor may have never had an intent to make anything of worth, either. The Supreme Court has gradually, and too slowly, ratcheted down such patent lawsuits, and Congress may ultimately pass reform to prevent such patents from being issued in the first place.

Patent trolls have a variety of defenses for their actions, most of which revolve around the notion that people that come up with unique ideas should have some title to them. Intellectual Ventures, a patent-holding fund founded by Nathan Myhrvold, asked rhetorically in a blog post this summer, "...what are the best ways to ensure that ideas are given the value they are due?" (The answer is "sue.") Ideas aren't patentable, however. Only methods and processes. It's part of the patent-troll distortion field that "ideas" are due protection independent from their implementation. (Listen to or read the transcript of NPR's excellent Planet Money report from this summer on business-method patents for a fair and detailed explanation.)

Firms that make products and hold patent troves typically don't love the current landscape, even when they have piles of intellectual property (as in the current patent wars among mobile handset makers) because it consumes too much time, money, attention, and effort. Amazon is often cited as an early abuser of business-method patents, especially for its 1-Click patent. But despite the chilling effect of the existence of 1-Click and many other Amazon patents, the firm has to my knowledge only prevented Barnes & Noble from using 1-Click, and otherwise hasn't pursued action. (Disclosure: I worked at Amazon in 1996 and 1997, and wrote up a patent that Jeff Bezos invented to hand off to a patent attorney.)

But Bezos in an interview this month with Steven Levy at Wired sounds like the most extreme of patent reformers:

Bezos: For many years, I have thought that software patents should either be eliminated or dramatically shortened. It’s impossible to measure the toll they've had on the software industry, but on balance, it has been negative.

Levy: But without software patents, you wouldn’t have exclusive rights to 1-Click shopping.

Bezos: If that were the price of having a dramatic reduction in software patents, it would be great.

All that said, that's not the nature of Black Rapid's patent. Its strap patent is for a product its founder and later owners developed and produced. They haven't filed a lawsuit against Luma Labs to my knowledge. It is likely and may be implicit, but it hasn't happened yet. It's possible Black Rapid has pursued the patent from a defensive angle, although its Web site's tone ("Anything else is a cheap imitation") makes that unlikely. A defensive patent is filed to make sure a business has put a stake in the sand to prevent other firms from keeping a company from going about its business. That's one strategy, although releasing detailed information into the public sphere (not public domain) about a product can establish prior art.

If we view the matter from its perspective, Black Rapid created something new, unique, and of value if kept exclusive. The patent system, in its original intent, was designed precisely for that purpose: to allow inventors the fruits of their work for a limited period to encourage a flourishing of experimentation.

Where the dispute lies is prior art. Patents (in the United States) must be useful, novel, and non-obvious to those who have expertise in the field. Prior art, or examples of patented or non-patented work that date from or before the patent's filing that essentially encompass what the patent covers. Improvements, if significant, may be patentable, but the same basic concept re-used is not.

James maintains that Black Rapid's notions aren't novel. The US Patent and Trademark Office didn't find it so. That's where it stands. James expects his firm would be targeted by Black Rapid because Luma is the most bijou firm in the free-sliding strap space. "Companies that have a patent will typically go after the smaller, weaker players first because they can get quick judgements before they go after somebody bigger," he said.

Luma Loop had another product under development for the last few months that doesn't overlap with the claims granted in Black Rapid's patent, and which James and Greg are accelerating development of, hoping for a December release. With this new product, which James said has a number of innovative elements, he is considering filing for patents. He said, "I don't want to do it because I don't want to perpetuate the system. But, on the other hand, I have a business to run and defend, and I totally get the idea of a defensive standpoint now."

UPDATE: A response from Black Rapid's Kurt Peterson follows. — Rob

We have been watching some of the comments being posted regarding the Luma Loop voluntary removal of their sling strap product line. Your site's article comes close to the facts. In perspective, we applied for this patent in 2007 and I can ensure you that our intent was not even closely focused on thinking about cornering the market ‹ as we did not even know if there was a market ‹ we did it, taking a huge financial risk, to protect the survival of a small start up company from being inundated by copy cat products or larger established companies from crushing us during our development phase. We are still a very small company just trying to build a respected brand and good products. As noted in the article, companies, such as Luma Loop, were provided notice of our patent pending upon the conception of their product line and they understood the business risks on proceeding with production and, respectfully, they voluntarily switched their design efforts upon the granting of the patent. Again, this was nothing more than a strategic business decision to protect our innovations and, by default, others during the start up period. I am sure that most of our competitors, possibly Luma Loop, have applied for some type of patents (most likely design) or trademarks on their products to protect their interests.


  1. Pesky kids getting in way of your photography. Lord knows that in life, the paramount thing is to be able to wield a DSLR WITH LENSES, at all times!

    1. I concur wholeheartedly.  After learning photography with a fully manual SLR [probably the last generation to learn on film with darkrooms,] I put aside photography for quite some time.  When I recently started again, I wanted a digital machine, but much as I loved my old SLR, the ONE thing I was excited about was NOT lugging that awkwardly-shaped heavy beast around everyday.

      Sure, I miss manual controls on the lens; but I can shoot RAW format, get thru-the-lens framing, and use manual settings on a camera that fits in my pocket!

      It baffles me how many amateur photographers lug DSLRs around with bags full of extra gear.  I can get the same shots, usually.  Embrace the obvious advantage of the digital format:  miniaturization.  You can hold both a baby and a smaller camera, then forget about special straps and patent-trolling altogether.

      [sage for off-topic but the post itself switched topics a few times so I don’t feel too bad]

  2. I have a Quick Strap attached to my camera and after looking at the Black Rapid I’d guess mine came from the same Chinese assembly line and they just swapped out a “Q” for an “R” on the shoulder. I paid $15 rather than $60 though. It’s a good product and I do like it much better than my old school neck strap.

  3. What a Catch 22 for innovators — damned if you do (filing silly patents and perpetuating a broken system) and damned if you don’t (everyone else is doing it and will sue you). 

    If a budding entrepreneur/innovator/inventor looks at the patent system and the proliferation of patent trolls (not that Black Rapid is a patent troll), he/she is likely to give up before getting started.  And that’s a shame.

    1. read it this way: “…provides examples … dating back to 1885…”. Where? In a blog post. When? no idea…

      1. Makes more sense that way. This is what I get for reading and commenting before any caffeine intake.

        Kind of an awkwardly worded sentence. Regardless, if something existed as far back as 1885, it surprises me that a patent was awarded. Then again, that seems like a common issue.

  4. I still don’t really get patents. Let’s say I patented the push button electrical circuit way back when. Wouldn’t I be able to sue the pants off everyone on the planet trying to make keyboards, console buttons, foot pedals, game controllers, and whatnot?

    I don’t mean to be snarky or anything…I’m honestly confused and kinda always have been. I only get more confused when I browse around Google Patents and see so many filings for super similar things.

    1. Patents are supposed to be extremely specific. So you’re not supposed to be able to patent he notion of a general switch, but a very specific one with diagram that show the function, and then make specific claims (in a weird patent language in which every word has only one meaning). So you can’t say, “Hey, a switch goes on and off.” Rather, you have to show a switch function and claim what’s unique, non-obvious, and worthwhile.

      The very broken part of the patent system is that courts (not Congress) allowed the existence of business-method patents, which describe how to do something abstract using a computer as the device that carries out the task. This is how LZW and SSL and other things were patented. That is what most businesses object to, even though with huge patent libraries, because it’s a distraction. The touchscreen patents Apple has would mostly stand, as they are hardware implementations; but interface and action patents would not.

      Also, patents have a limited lifetime. SSL was patented so early that the patent expired when the Web started to expand, allowing its replacement by TLS (which novel concepts were not patented or had the patents donated, not sure which) without lawsuits.

      1. Wow, thanks for the awesome response. I am elucidated!

        One things still bothers me though…why would Black Rapid go after a company as small as Luma? Well, er, I mean, why now? What (I wonder) was the spark that gave them the idea, “hey, let’s sue those guys!” Do you think they’re trying to be the only player in the camera strap sling world? Because for the most part there’s always at least two competitors in any product niche, it seems.

        1. BlackRapid hasn’t gone after them. Luma Loop stopped producing their straps because they feared they might get sued, but if you read the article there’s nothing to suggest that BlackRapid has done anything at all except file for the patent.

      2. Yeah, that’s precisely what bothers me about patents, the vagueness of what can be patented. None of these guys should own the exclusive right to have a strap with another sliding strap on it, that’s just way too simple an idea. What they should be able to patent in this case is the actual connection mechanism between the strap and the camera, which in the case of these two are very different.

        I own a BlackRapid strap myself which I absolutely adore, and with a product that good you shouldn’t worry about there being others doing similar kind of products. But of course if they don’t patent it, another company will so it’s really not their fault.. It’s the whole patent system that must become more strict and specific.

    2. Patents grant exclusivity for a finite period of time, roughly 20 years from the filing date.  So, you could sue the pants off everyone just for that time period, then it is in the public domain for free use.  

      1. Holy Shit! 20 years, for a camera strap. 20 years seems like a ridiculously long time to have a monopoly.  Although I do think this is a great example of someone coming up with a gadget that makes the world better.

        I think the premise that people wouldn’t be making these things if there wasn’t exclusivity is BS.  Patent life should be tied to the R&D investment in the product, and contingent on you actually making the product.

    3. Only for a limited period – I think it’s about 20 years in the UK for example.

      That’s why (for example) big pharma spends so much on research: not beccause they want to find new cures, or better ones, but because they are losing their monopoly on the old ones, and need to find something else that no-one else can sell without buying a licence from them.

  5. Sounds like both companies have legitimate points.  What we need is an independent person (like, oh, I don’t know.  A judge?) to decide who wins.  The real problem here is the cost of litigation.  Small companies simply can’t afford it.

  6. An amazingly insightful post about the death of innocence in late capitalism disguised as a gadget advertisement? What are you trying to do to my reading habits !? 

    When they started embedding poetry in spam I began to worry. . . what if the next Philip K Dick writes life insurance advertisements? SECRET INITIATIONS.

  7. Black Rapid never went after Luma. They files for a patent, which may have been an offensive OR a defensive move. Luma is shutting down per-emptively to avoid a future lawsuit should Black Rapid sue.

    That said, this move seems a bit drastic. Did Luma reach out to Black Rapid to discuss a licensing arrangement? Even if they didn’t want to or couldn’t license the patent, a request for ex parte reexamination only costs $2520, which is a very small price to pay to keep a business afloat. Heck, they could probably raise a good percentage of that by asking for donations, given the fan following they seem to have.

    1. The $2520 is what the PTO would charge them.  What would the attorney who prepares the request for the reexam charge them?  $10K?  $20K?

  8. I’m not quite sure what the point of this article is. It goes from praising a product (which isn’t available) to talking about a patent issue that has abosultely nothing to do with this product, and then goes back to talk about why this product isn’t on the market. I suppose this raises the profile of Luma slightly, but i’m not sure what’s at issue here. The author speaks of “Prior art” but cites nothing of actual prior art to speak of. Is he talking about the Military’s M-16 straps or what?

     I actually just recieved a BlackRapid (BR) Strap for an anniversary present from my wife and did do a double take when I saw the “Patent Pending” Statement on the strap itself, so i’m not entirely surprised to see a situation like this, but couldn’t Luma Just talk to BR (who very obviously got there first) and come up with a licensing deal? This is hardly black market extortion, BR got there first in terms of patents. Period. The total fees to dispute this patent will probably cost way more than Luma is likely to pay BR unless of course they’re greedy bastards (which I doubt). Luma might even be able to get away with a one time fee Paid to BR in an approximate amount of what might get spent in the otherwise ensuing patent lawsuit.  To me anyhow, this article seems like just so much ado about nothing. 

    Business is Business. TANSTAAFL

  9. One thing I’m sue that I will disregard BlackRapid products forever, unless there is a change… And I will make sure to tell people why.

    I have both kind of strap and I can tell you that theirs is not as good as Luma Labs’.

    1. Black rapid patented *their* idea first. They haven’t taken any other action. What have they done wrong?

  10. sounds like both products borrow heavily from what is called a single point rifle sling–or even better for a camera a single point bungee sling.  I know photographers who use modded rifle slings for just that purpose, I have a dozen slings at home i’m using for a accordion strap project.

    1. This is interesting and must be the “prior art” and “obviousness” the author alludes to but never mentions. Personally i’m pretty sure BR hasn’t done ANYTHING to deserve negative attention here. Bringing patent trolls into the discussion was totally unnecessary.

    2. Phil, your comment hit while I was typing mine out and is much better stated. How is this *significantly* different, thus patentable, than a single-point rifle sling?

    3. IIRC, Luma Loop chose a manufacturer who makes parts for single point rifle slings to make their quick releases.

      The interesting challenge here is to prevent the blatant knockoffs as mentioned in the second comment while encouraging innovation. It was my understanding that the Luma Loop’s distinguishing characteristics were the pro strap and the push button quick release (vs. the carabiner style Blask Rapid uses).

      An over the shoulder strap with a freely gliding attachment seems a bit too general, even if specifically applied to cameras. The stops to restrict some of the motion may or may not be so straightforward.

      Maybe Luma Loop needs to market their strap for rifles that have a thin strap attachment point?

  11. While sadly this recommendation has nothing to do with any IP drama, I cannot suggest strongly enough that any SLR user get a side strap such as this one. It allows the hand to hold and control the weight of the camera, while not involving the fingers at all. This gets you as close to protracted one-handed operation as you’re likely to get with an SLR.

  12. Litigation is expensive and risky for the patent holder too, especially if there are serious questions about the strength of the patent. They risk losing the entire patent! A patent that, rightly or wrongly, they’ve spent many years and a lot of money obtaining. I’d think a smart patentholder with a weak patent would be eager to license it to a competitor, rather than have to spend money defending it and lose anyway. But it’s business decisions and a poker game for all sides.

  13. communication is helpful.  luma loop, pick up the phone and call black rapid and maybe you can work something out.

    1. The cynic in me wonders if this isn’t Luma’s idea of communicating. Rather than call BR and talk it out, they decide to write a public letter that makes BR look like patent trolls and hope the ensuing public discussion makes their case for them. It could be that some communication occurred already before the patent was granted and Luma does know BR intends to go after competitors (maybe BR offered a licensing agreement to competitors shortly after filing, but before approval, and no one took them up on the deal because they thought the patent wouldn’t pass muster). 

      The optimist in me thinks Luma is just overreacting to a threat that hasn’t fully materialized yet (no one has filed suit against anybody). They’re just making a decision to discontinue a popular product and telling their customers why. This same part of me thinks BR filed this patent in good faith because they sincerely believe it qualifies (though I disagree with them on that point).

      The photographer in me prefers Black Rapid’s straps anyway but is now conflicted about buying one because of IP issues. So score one point for Luma I guess, though I’m not certain that’s a good thing either. One thing about the ability to publicly shame people and companies online (or just talk about them without trying to shame them) is that a lot of shots get fired without asking questions first and people’s emotional response to stories tends to overwhelm their reasoning. I’m second guessing a holiday purchase because a company I know little about filed a patent for a device that may or may not qualify for one and another company I know little about is upset by that. 

      1. Matt, you shouldn’t worry or second guess a decision about buying a Black Rapid strap because of this.

        Personally, I’m a strong believer in that everyone should use the gear that helps them to be their most effective when they are out in the field. Everything you buy and use should be in the service of making images—that’s the most important thing. If you prefer it to any other single point sling (or any other strap for that matter) still on the market, then that’s the one you should get. And I’d tell you that even if the Loop were still for sale. 

      2. I think there’s a good chance of that, Matt… of course Luma is overreacting!  Good grief, they shut down production altogether instead of picking up the phone and calling Black Rapid?  I’m not saying its likely, but there is the potential that this gets resolved with a ten minute chat and then GF can write twenty paragraphs about something more interesting.

        1. I wouldn’t assume that there was no communication between the companies. It’d be absolutely silly to remove a product from sale right before the busy holiday season without good reason.

  14. There’s a key difference between the Rapid Strap and a single poing rifle sling. With the RS, the strap itself doesn’t move. The attached camera slides along the strap from the hip to shooting position. With a single point rifle sling, the the strap moves around the body as you move the rifle from storage to firing position.

  15. What amazes me here is that someone tried to copyright what is essentially a strap and a clip. Both of which can be purchased at a hardware store for less that $10.00.

    Nylon Straps, Snap clips, and quick release buckles are cheap and plentiful. If you are a photographer, go make your own!!!

  16. My name is on a few patents, and I’ve also designed circuits to skirt around others’ patents.  Sometimes the “novel and non-obvous” aspect isn’t apparent to the designers; several times I’ve been told “well, it wouldn’t be obvious to anyone else…”

    Still, my favorite lawyer joke was told to me by a patent lawyer:  “I don’t like to use Laten, per se…”

  17. I got the C-Loop from Custom SLR when they started the project on Kickstarter. Couldn’t be happier with the combination of their Split Strap.
    Now I wonder why they didn’t see any patent conflict issues and they, to my knowledge, were never approached by any lawyers.
    Just a happy customer:

    I don’t know this space very well but after reading this article I cannot decide between ‘unjust’ and ‘premature hyperbole’.

  18. Isn’t this a perfect case for “if you’re going to kill it, open source it”?

    Patents allow for public discussion of the ideas, and Luma Labs have already decided to sell no more. Everybody wins!

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