Microsoft may start watching you through your Xbox Kinect

Microsoft Xbox Kinect patent

A newly published Microsoft patent shows the Redmond, Washington-based computing giant may soon have the ability to monitor Xbox users through their Kinect hands-free controller. The system would allow content providers, like movie studios or record companies, new ways to monetize their goods. Only problem: The technology sounds like something straight out of 1984.

Microsoft’s patent, entitled “Content Distribution Regulation by Viewing User,” was first filed in April of 2011, and was published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on November 1 of this year. The patent describes a “content presentation system and method allowing content providers to regulate the presentation of content on a per-user-view basis.”

So what, exactly, does that mean? Well, according to the patent, that means content providers will be able to offer content licenses to customers based not only on time (i.e. “this rental lasts 24 hours”) but also on the number of people watching a movie, for example, or listening to a song or album. Microsoft’s system would then use the Kinect’s camera to actually see how many people are in the room. If it’s more than the amount allowed by the purchased license, the entertainment will stop, and the system (probably Xbox Live) will demand that the customer upgrade to a new license that allows for more viewers.

Or, in the words of the patent itself: “The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken.” Furthermore, Microsoft’s technology may enable individuals to be “specifically identified and the amount of their consumption of the content tracked relative to their specific use.”

Microsoft Patent figure 5 and 6

A note on copyright law: Right now, U.S. copyright law contains a provision known as “Public Performance” that gives copyright holders the right to when their protected intellectual property is performed or shown in public. So, what does “public” mean in this case? The law says “public” is a “place open to the public or at a place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered.”

The tendency might be to assume that Microsoft’s patent is there to give copyright holders a better way to police public performances of their movies and music – and that certainly seems like a no-brainer application of the technology. But that is not really what Microsoft is proposing here – this is some other beast entirely.

What Microsoft’s enabling with this patent is the exact opposite of public performance monitoring. Indeed, it seeks to monitor what are obviously private performances, which are not prohibited by copyright law. Not only that, but it greatly strengthens copyright holders’ power over users by allowing them to block their legally obtained content if, say, someone else walks in the room.

The benefits for Microsoft and content providers goes far beyond protecting copyright; it allows them to establish entirely new pricing for content. Only one person watching this movie? That’ll be $2. There’s 10 of you? Well, you’re going to have to cough up $15. And you’d better hope nobody shows up late to the party.

For consumers who are already disgusted with the disintegration of ownership in the 21st century, technology like that which Microsoft describes in this patent is clearly a giant leap in the wrong direction. We can only hope this is one of those ideas that dies in the prototype phase, and doesn’t become an industry norm.

And to think, these are the same companies that want to dissuade people from pirating their content. Here’s a hint: This won’t help.

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