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in Filmmaking
on Jul 11, 2007

BoingBoing documents an eccentric patent war in this post about two companies facing off over the right to rent inflatable dummies for movie crowd scenes.

It starts with this story on CNN by Elizabeth Wright:

You’ve seen them in Million-Dollar Baby, Be Cool, and Ocean’s 13: stands crammed with spectators cheering for the hero. But in the movies, sometimes not even the extras are real. To cut costs, filmmakers dress up inflatable vinyl torsos to intersperse among real people in crowd scenes.

Now the two startups in the market are squaring off in court. Crowd in a Box (, which holds patents issued in 2004 and 2005 for the use of inflatable humanoid figures in background scenes, is suing Inflatable Crowd for patent violation.

Cory Doctorow’s commentary at BoingBoing delves into the more serious ramifications of what initially reads like a silly case:

A company that patented the idea of using inflatable dummies for crowd-scenes in movies is suing another company that does the same thing. The defendant has a successful business, the plaintiff does not, so he is seeking to drive the successful competitor out of business.

It’s such a misery that the US Patent and Trademark office continues to abdicate its responsibility to the American public, granting virtually every patent application filed before it. Using dummies for crowd scenes fails the “non-obvious” test that every patent is supposed to be subjected to, in spades.

Every entrepreneur I know is pressured to file “defensive patents” for the most basic, simple things, but no one can tell me how these are supposed to work. If the second guy also had a patent on inflatable dummies, he’d still have to bankrupt himself in court proving his patent was good and the other guy’s was bad. The plaintiff doesn’t care — he’s going out of business as it is, he can lose it in court or in the market. And once he goes under, his patents will be bought by patent trolls, companies that make nothing but lawsuits, and they will sue any successful inflatable dummy business for everything they have.

As a producer, I’ve used these dummies, although I seem to remember the ones we rented were called “flat people” and were cardboard. They show up on time, are well behaved, and you don’t have to argue with them about whether the orange juice they are being served is of the same quality as that given the day players.

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