Apple to block iPhone photography, video recording at concerts

This morning the British tabloid The Sun reported that Apple is developing technology that will allow for an external transmitter to deactivate your iPhone camera at concert venues. Obviously, it could be a terrible marketing move — but not just for Apple.

First, let’s learn about the technology, which isn’t entirely evil. Apple filed a patent on June 2, 2011 to include infrared technology in their cameras. Infrared sensors, like the inexpensive ones included in your TV remote, transmit data via invisible light within line-of-sight. Infrared sensors are inexpensive, tiny and the idea to combine them with cameras is brilliantly simple. There could be thousands of uses for this.

As an example of this technology being used for good, Apple envisions museums could use this to lead tours or provide extra information. When a visitor points a camera at an object or display, a small transmitter hidden next to the object will send a data signal to the iPhone to play videos, display text or other information. It doesn’t take too much effort for me to envision the wonderful things this technology could bring. I could come up with about a dozen robust advertising and marketing uses right now.

Now for the evil part. Apple is also including the ability for an external transmitter to disable the iPhone’s camera. The example they use is theaters and concert venues. Some venues already employ wireless phone signal jammers to prohibit texting and phone calls. Now they could place small transmitters around the stage to render iPhone cameras useless. As well, virtual and invisible “watermarks” could also be applied to objects, printed images — or anything — rendering them un-photographable. Again, it doesn’t take too much effort for me to envision the worrisome things this technology could bring — like police officers and TSA agents buttoning the tiny watch-battery-powered transmitters to their uniforms to prohibit recording (something Rodney King would probably take issue with).

Civil rights issues aside, we’re both here to talk about marketing. You and I know that record labels and movie executives will be the two most enthusiastic supporters of this cell phone camera-disabling technology. But in my opinion, they’re some of the people who should dread it the most.

I recently saw the innovative cellist Zoe Keating in concert at the Evanston SPACE, a small urban venue, north of Chicago. Recording was officially prohibited, but around me sat several individuals holding up their iPhones and Android phones, quietly recording bits of the performance. The Evanston SPACE ignored them, as did Zoe Keating. [Please see the update below from Zoe Keating] Where did those videos and images wind up? YouTube. Facebook. Twitter. Their personal blogs. They will be seen by others and hopefully new people will become introduced to Zoe Keating, and the beautiful and intimate Evanston SPACE. Will those people feel satisfied that they no longer need to see Zoe Keating live, or see another live performance at Evanston SPACE because they saw a shaky video with poor audio? Of course not.

As an advertising and marketing agency, we’re constantly looking for opportunities to promote things. Social media is one of several powerful mediums to share information, and fresh content is always needed. Record labels, movie executives, theaters, concert halls, venues and the artists themselves should be embracing amateur photography and recordings (as long as they’re not distracting to others watching the performance) instead of fighting them and creating enemies out of those that support them the most. They should empower everyone in the audience to be what they already really want to be: motivated and happy advocates and ambassadors who want to share their experience with others — and help promote you for free.

Apple files patents all the time for things that they never make it into production, and there’s no word on whether or not this new technology will ever see the light (or infrared light) of day. Hopefully this camera-disabling feature will remain on paper in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and not in your pocket.

For now, look for ways you can empower your clients and customers to help spread the word about you. It’s the best kind of marketing move you can make.

UPDATE Zoe Keating isn’t just savvy about combining music and technology, she’s also pretty adept at social media. She actively engages with her fans on her Facebook page and Twitter. She wanted to clarify her stand on this and emailed the following note:

“In your story last week about Apple potentially blocking video recording, you mentioned a concert of mine where video was not allowed. The implication is that I didn’t allow the video. I want to set the record straight so that no one is confused: I allow and actively encourage video and photos at my shows. The only thing I ask is that mediatakers be aware of other members of the audience and not impede their experience of the concert (i.e. by holding a camera over your head and blocking other’s view.). At my concerts where video is not allowed, it is because it is venue’s policy that I cannot change.”
Thanks very much, Zoe


  1. June 20, 2011

    @Justin Kraft Same here, I love to see amateur recordings before I attend a concert just so I know what to expect.

    @Zoe Keating. Thank you for your note, we’ve posted an update to the article. Thank you for your comments, and for your music.

    @Tami Highbaugh-Abdullah Wonder if there would be a liability issue if an emergency arose but someone were not able to be notified because their cell signal was blocked.

  2. Eddie Vee
    June 28, 2011

    Wikipedia on Cell Signal Scamblers:
    Since these jammers actively broadcast radio signals, they may or may not be legal to possess or operate based on the specific laws of the area one is in.

    Canada: illegal, except by federal law-enforcement agencies who have obtained approval

    United States: Cell phone blocking devices are used by federal officials under certain circumstances. Privacy rights of property owners may affect the policy and application of law within buildings. The FCC may issue a permit that waives the law for private use. For radio communications, it is illegal to operate, manufacture, import, or offer for sale, including advertising (Communications Act of 1934). Blocking radio communications in public can carry fines of up to $11,000 or imprisonment of up to one year. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 may override the Communications Act of 1934.

    As for ‘infra ray’ technology, I would hope that Apple would be smart enough not to enable it; it makes no sense to do so unless they will directly benefit from it, from a marketing standpoint. Perhaps Apple feels as though they have a large/ignorant enough audience to add this to a device, as one of their own adverts shows a happy user simultaneously broadcasting a concert to friends. Rare that people would download an album on iTunes from a band they’d never heard of, I’m sure.