Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?
Google Math Patents The Courts Linux Your Rights Online

Patent 5,893,120 Reduced To Pure Math 323

An anonymous reader writes "US Patent #5,893,120 has been reduced to mathematical formulae as a demonstration of the oft-ignored fact that there is an equivalence relation between programs and mathematics. You may recognize Patent #5,893,210 as the one over which Google was ordered to pay $5M for infringing due to some code in Linux. It should be interesting to see how legal fiction will deal with this. Will Lambda calculus no longer be 'math'? Or will they just decide to fix the inconsistency and make mathematics patentable?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Patent 5,893,120 Reduced To Pure Math

Comments Filter:
  • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @02:57PM (#35992140)
    it doesn't matter if program is reducible to mathematics, only that a claim for a software patent might be valid if it contains "a mathematical formula [and] implements or applies the formula in a structure or process which, when considered as a whole, is performing a function which the patent laws were designed to protect" []
    • by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @03:02PM (#35992172)
      The problem is the definition of "implementation." If I patent, say, linear discriminant analysis, and implement it using C++, what did I get a patent on? A C++ implementation? My own personal implementation? No, in the current patent system, I get a patent on any implementation -- or in other words, a patent on the mathematics itself, to within a particular interpretation of the variables and results of the computation.
    • by devent ( 1627873 )

      Such a patent should be valid if the device's only function is to perform the software and nothing more (or the device is performing the software to archive one goal). But if the software is run by a general computer, than you can't patent the computer.

      The lawyers try to tell then the computer is somehow magically transformed by the running software into a device that can be patented. And that is the main problem with software patents that you get a patent that covers every possible devices, existing and fu

    • a software patent might be valid if it contains "a mathematical formula [and] implements or applies the formula in a structure or process which, when considered as a whole, is performing a function which the patent laws were designed to protect"

      I wonder if they ever heard anything about the Curry-Howard isomorphism? And what do they mean by "a structure or process"? A formula of the untyped lambda-calculus? A formula of the untyped lambda-calculus plus the conversion rules? A formula of the pi-calculus? An implementation of this formula on a physical machine? How do they determine when two computable functions are equivalent? LOL, by the functions having the same graph? (Hopefully not...)

      How do they know when two algorithms are identical w

  • So? (Score:5, Informative)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @02:59PM (#35992148)
    This point has been made repeatedly, but nobody cares. The eHarmony patent was shown to be nothing more than linear algebra with particular names assigned to each variable. People have been pointing out the relationship between software and lambda calculus since before most Slashdot users were in high school, but it has had practically no impact on the legality or public opinion of software patents.
    • Re:So? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Tom ( 822 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @03:27PM (#35992316) Homepage Journal

      Politics has been indisturbed by the facts of the real world for as long as history allows us to judge. All you have to do is look beyond the Solons, Washingtons or whatever your countrys famous politicians are - the day-to-day dealings of politics is a horrible mess and always has been, and things like truth, fact or evidence are way down the list of things to worry about.

      The judicial branch is often quite a bit more pragmatic, but also caught up in its own world. The most important problem being that they try hard to be consistent, so change is hard to get. Once a higher court has decided on an interpretation of law, the lower courts usually don't disagree too much, and it requires a new case with new facts to get everyone to revisit the decision.

      Which is cool because it means good decisions stand and aren't easily challenged just because you have a lot of money. The problem is that it takes considerable time to get rid of bad decisions. In the long run, the system works very well, but in the short run, it often fails when new facts, ideas, technologies, etc. are involved.

  • by ciaran_o_riordan ( 662132 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @03:07PM (#35992200) Homepage

    I've collected various examples of this argument here: []

    However, you have to remember that this is *not* the end of the discussion (or at best, this will result in this one patent getting invalidated or narrowed).

    When faced with "software=math" arguments, judges still argue that *applications* of math to real world problems can be patentable.

    What we need is legislation saying that writing, distributing, selling, and using software cannot constitute a patent violation.

    • Sure, software is math. I'll accept the point as stated.

      Likewise, books are language. Can books be copyrighted? No one owns language.

      A power drill is metal and plastic. Can a power drill be patented, then?

      Patents aren't limited to ideas that have never been remotely observed before in all of human existence. You patent innovations. Many innovations are incremental, probably even the vast majority of them. I don't see how saying "but that's just math" invalidates the significance of a particular innovation.

      • I'm not a fan of software=math arguments, but an example of their value is in the US Supreme Court's "Flook" ruling:,_USA) []

        That's the starting point I'd use if I had to argue based on software being math, but I'd rather not rely on that.

        Being equal to math isn't the reason why software patents are a problem for society. Blocking software development, forcing incompatibility, stifling competition, and being incompatible with the development models (lots of individ

      • by Draek ( 916851 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @03:45PM (#35992430)

        Sure, software is math. I'll accept the point as stated.

        Likewise, books are language. Can books be copyrighted? No one owns language.

        Wrong. Words, when put together, form sentences which form paragraphs which form stories, which in turn can be copyrighted. But stories are not paragraphs, paragraphs are not sentences, and sentences are not words so the fact that words cannot be copyrighted by itself is not relevant to stories.

        Mathematical formulae however, when put together they're still formulae, merely a longer (and probably more descriptive) one, and mathematical formulae cannot be copyrighted or patented.

        There's a big difference between saying "you could probably do that with a computer" and actually doing it with a computer, which is what a software patent would cover.

        Except this isn't saying "you could probably do that with a computer", this is saying "you can do that with a computer like this". Allowing software patents but denying math is much like allowing copyright over hexadecimal numbers but disallowing it for decimals: there exist a way to transform one into the other that's formally proven to work for any and all elements of either set, so anything that works for members of one set *must* work for the other and to declare otherwise is to automatically fall into a contradiction. If you'd study Math or CS it'd be much clearer as to how and why, if you must know, but that's kind of outside the context of this post.

        • You actually brought up something I've wondered about: When Sony, or the DVD consortium, or whoever it is *this* time start crying about the release of their respective signing key and claiming copyright to the number, why not just start representing it in decimal, or as the multiple of two primes, or some other form that is clearly not subject to copyright/patent?

          For exqample, the so called "09 F9" AACS key is 13,256,278,887,989,457,651,018,865,901,401,704,640, so that decimal number in and of itself is n

      • by Appolonius of Perge ( 961983 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @03:55PM (#35992474)

        Nobody is arguing against protecting a specific implementation of an algorithm (although copyright already provides this protection).

        The problem is that when you patent an algorithm, you don't just patent that expression of that idea, like you do with a book or a power drill. You patent all the expressions of that idea. It would be like writing a book on some topic, and then owning the rights to all books on that topic until the patent runs out. You own a whole chunk of the language, every possible expression of you idea, not just the particular one you came up with.

        Likewise, when you patent an algorithm, you have patented an entire (admittedly fairly confined) branch of mathematics, having to do with expressions of that algorithm. This is distasteful, and, as the current software patent climate has shown, has terrible chilling effects on the software industry as a whole.

      • by maxwell demon ( 590494 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @04:09PM (#35992554) Journal

        Likewise, books are language. Can books be copyrighted? No one owns language.

        There's a difference. Copyright covers only the specific expression. Patents cover the whole idea.
        For example, the copyright on Harry Potter covers the story on Harry Potter, and derived works. A patent on Harry Potter OTOH could look like this:

        1. A story about a normal, underprivileged boy who turns out to be special.
        2. As 1, where the specialty is that he actually is the son of a magician.
        3. As 1, where the boy lives in England.
        4. As 2, where the boy himself gets educated in magic. ...

        You see, it would cover a lot of possible books, most of which would have very little relation to Harry Potter. Even worse, it would even apply to books of authors who never heard of Harry Potter (unlikely in case of Harry Potter, but the same would be true for quite obscure books as well). Or imagine that someone else had filed such a patent before, without actually writing such a book, then Harry Potter would not have been a success story, but a nightmare for J. K. Rowling.

        Patents have to be much stricter in what they can be applied to because they are much broader in scope.

        • by Longjmp ( 632577 )
          The best comment I ever read about this issue.

          Sorry, no mod points ;-)
        • by skywire ( 469351 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @04:46PM (#35992824)

          Copyright covers only the specific expression.

          This was long one of the cornerstones of US copyright law. You must have been in a Rip van Winkle nap while that principle was being excised from the law by clever judges over the last few decades. Sadly, you can't even write a completely novel imagining of an older Holden Caulfield's behaviour without falling afoul of the current 'copyright' case law.

        • Rowling made so much money off the Potter series that even if she had been sued successfully for patent infringement, she still would have come out stinking rich...

      • by Nemyst ( 1383049 )

        You can derive mathematics in isolation. Case in point, many mathematic proofs and "discoveries" have been done independently and simultaneously (namely differential calculus with Newton and Leibniz).

        You cannot, however, "derive" a book or end up with the exact same arrangement of words, apart from chance. Likewise, your drill will not have the same configuration, elements, inner workings, etc. It'll be different enough to be considered unique in its own right.

        • by skywire ( 469351 )

          Whereas, as you rightly point out, a copyrighted work will not, due to the laws of probability, be duplicated without copying it, such is hardly the case for an invention like a drill, as so many have to their chagrin discovered.

      • Your book example is a failure, because you switched which variety of IP you were talking about.

        Software should fall under either copyright or patent, not both. Personally, I'd favor copyright despite it's ridiculously long terms, simply on the whole "pure math isn't patentable. software is an expression of math in a machine readable form, and nothing else; therefore, it should not be patentable."

        Let me put it this way, if I added "in French" to something that was explicitly not patentable, it would not m

  • Yes, the mathematical formula is not patentable, and you can compute with it all you like. But when you actually apply it to perform information retrieval in a physical computer, then the patent applies.

    I'm not saying that the patent is valid (there is tons of prior art), or that such a distinction ought to be made. But it is certainly a distinction one can make.

    And if people keep insisting that such a distinction is meaningless, it is more likely that the patentability exclusion for mathematical formulas

    • The question is more-> if you have a patent that is a formula derived from "open-source" mathematics that anyone can use, how valid can any patent on it be? It's not a technique, per se. It's not new. It's a mathematical manipulation that a million people before you have thought of, learned, and used. Could engineers have patented the formulas used to create objects like engines, etc? How many automakers would we have now if the formulas used in the design of cars were patented by those making the
  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @03:19PM (#35992274)

    I'm pretty sure that in the late 1930s, the process to make Little Boy and Fat Man would have been patentable under any purview that considered any kind of patents to be valid.

    And, in the end, all they are is the bringing together of big lumps of elementary material, albeit highly refined from what is found in nature, to bring about a reaction that, itself (after decades of study), can now be reduced to a set of mathematical equations.

    As for software patents, some wiener patented the use of XOR to draw a cursor... if that can stand, why not anything else, like one-click order taking?

    I truly hope we have hit bottom of the patent well, but I'm sure there's an army of attorneys out there willing to dig with ever sharper tools.

    • I'm pretty sure that in the late 1930s, the process to make Little Boy and Fat Man would have been patentable under any purview that considered any kind of patents to be valid.

      They were patented by Leo Szilard, US government stole/took over for free those patents and screwed the inventor.

    • That is a horribly ignorant way to look at it. Physical materials - even relatively simple ones like base elements - cannot be simply described as a mathematical value. You can say "Oh, it's element___ with this many protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, leptons, etc" but you'd still be leaving out a MASSIVE amount of data which would be required to completely describe(mathematically) the object's form and composition.

      This is as opposed to trying to patent the chemical chain reaction equation of Uranium, Pl

    • by devent ( 1627873 )

      How is bringing together material and build something is math? Do you know what it means to build something? You have get a hammer and screwdriver in your hand and put nails or screws into holes and you have to cut metal or wood. In the end you have some device, a product, which either works or not.

      Math is just a bunch of formula on the paper with freely defined meaning. There is no device, no product at the end. It doesn't work and it can't work because it's just formula on the paper. The same is with soft

  • There is a very thin line between "a lot of mathematic formulas" and an algorithm. For example, the AES encryption algorithm can be written down as a very complex set of mathematical equations.

    And it is, of course, patentable. Because, for the purposes of patents, there are no real differences between algorithm/method and technique/technology.

    • the question is: 1) specific implementation - because with the current system you don't have to have one, you own the concept of it. 2) were you using 'old' formulas to do something overall 'new'. In this case, the suing company didn't write the specific implementation, and didn't do anything 'new'. they just copyrighted a concept that was self evident, and done before many many times. It's only the broken patent system that allows something like that to exist.
  • When you create software, what do you do?

    Do you write software or do you make software?

    I think that is the fundamental question that needs to be asked. If you make it, it should be patented. If you write it it should be copyrighted. The issue here is that the software industry (in part) wants to go double-dipping.

    • by mark-t ( 151149 )
      By the argument that if you make it, it should be patented, then sculptures and paintings should be patentable as well.
      • Sure. The first person who did something innovative with sculpture - like, say, creating a method and product where interlocking pieces of wood are created in sculpture by carving them out of a single piece - would be patentable. 3000 years ago.

        • by mark-t ( 151149 )
          No no no.... not a method behind making the sculpture, but rather the sculpture itself.
    • When you write software, the particular implementation in source code is copyrightable. You may implement an idea in the public domain as source code and copyright the source code, and I cannot copy your source code and sell it. I can implement the same idea in my own source code and copyright my source code.

      The method that an algorithm uses may be patentable. If I patent an algorithm I can require that you pay me a licensing fee to write and sell software that uses the algorithm.

      The real problem with softw

      • by Spewns ( 1599743 )

        For an idea to be patentable, it should not be obvious to someone skilled in that technical area.

        Sounds like an incredibly shaky, arbitrary foundation upon which to build a system. I'd like to see someone come up with concrete, objective definitions of "obvious" and "technical area".

    • I do both, I first write it then I build it !

  • ... the patent office has traditionally excluded mathematics from being patentable?

    I mean, really, what is the reason behind it?

    Because if, in fact, there is a legitimate answer to that question, then it *MUST* follow that any patent that can be shown to be isomorphic to a sequence of math operations should reasonably be rendered invalid on that basis, and no other.

  • RSA crypto can be reduced to pure math. JPEG, MPEG 2 layer 3 audio encoding, ditto, etc.

    • The code the responsible companies wrote for these technologies should be patentable(which for something written is called Copyright) - so you can not make a verbatim copy and sell it as your own - but they should not be truly patentable any more than a book is.

      If I write patented code in a novel as something a hacker character came up with, but it doesn't actually run on a computer or do anything(as it is printed on a page of a book) then should you be able to come after me for a patent violation? No. You

  • Are we talking about the same patent or is there a misprint here? The two numbers are not the same.

  • by Grond ( 15515 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @04:27PM (#35992680) Homepage

    I am an attorney & patent agent and I hold multiple degrees in mathematics and computer science, so I feel fairly competent to speak on this issue.

    The claims require a physical implementation (e.g. "An information storage and retrieval system"). No amount of math will produce such a system out of the aether. Nor does thinking about the math or the formulas on pen & paper infringe the patent. The specification makes it clear that "information storage and retrieval system" refers to a computer system. Thus, the patent was not actually reduced to pure mathematics.

    The nonpatentability of mathematics refers literally to patenting a formula or algorithm without any useful application, just as chemical elements cannot be patented but a mechanical device made entirely of a single element could be. A claim to a bare formula would be invalid for lack of utility as well as lack of patentable subject matter. Consequently, the Curry-Howard Correspondence has no effect on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions.

    • But according to that argument, if I write a program that does this and distribute that program, I should not be violating the patent, because I'm not distributing "an information and storage retrieval system", right?

    • by bieber ( 998013 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @05:24PM (#35993064)
      That entire argument is pure semantics, however. The patent holder has not invented some novel new device for information storage and retrieval which physically implements the algorithm, they've simply come up with a set of instructions for existing machines which allows them to perform that algorithm. To make a less than perfect analogy, a waiter, if given instructions to wash dishes for the evening, does not in fact become a new person who is a dishwasher rather than a waiter. They're just doing something different than they did before.

      The fact that the patent office considers this an "invention" is an absurd technicality. Maybe you can technically twist the letter of the law to fit the idea of a patent on a software technique, but at that point you've completely abandoned the spirit of the law. While the judicial system is busy tangling over fine points of language, America's technological industries are going to hell in a hand basket. Unless you're a massive multinational corporation, good luck trying to implement any useful software without using at least a couple dozen "novel" computational techniques from the last two decades...
    • by devent ( 1627873 )

      Maybe you right but than the patent should not be granted. "An information storage and retrieval system" is just too broad. That covers everything from a computer to the human brain to paper and pen. It's like a patent on an automobile which just needs "a horseless power that can move a carriage". Or a television with just needs "a screen that can display images".

      So patent claim should be specific to one device. You can't just say "something+human interface device" and claim a patent for it. That's just my

    • Since you read (or at least skimmed) the specification, did you find anything corresponding to the means-plus-function elements in the claim? I'm curious if the reduction to math took those into account, and I don't feel like reading the specification.
    • by Co0Ps ( 1539395 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @05:50PM (#35993226)

      When discussing the issue of software patents, one always refers to "computer system" implementations. Since the domain has already been selected it is perfectly acceptable to claim that the basis of a software patent can be reduced to pure mathematics without refuting your argument.

  • If you outlaw patents for math only outlaws will have patents for math. Oh, wait... it did not not come out right. OMG! The outlaws are already having patents for math!
  • Patent Law Explained (Score:5, Informative)

    by xkr ( 786629 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @04:41PM (#35992782)

    All of patent law deals with interpretations, most of which are involve varying degrees of subtly.

    The Federal Circuit Court has provided a great deal of well-written guidance. This particularly applies to what is and is not patentable.

    The issue of what is and is not patentable is not black and white, such as, “mathematical formulas are not patentable,” or “software is patentable.”

    A process that creates something useful and tangible is patentable, whether or not that process involves a calculation. What is not patentable is a “pure” formula that is not tied to something tangible. Data structures are tricky. The newer rules (yes, lots of mistakes were made in the past) are that generalized data structures, such as a table or a linked list, do not count as “tangible.” However, if those data structures are used (critically) to perform useful work, such as to refine steel or to serve up ads on websites, then the ENTIRE process is patentable. Subject, of course to all the other restrictions, such as non-obviousness.

    These rules are not really new. They are the same rules that apply to mechanical inventions. For example, you cannot patent a “law of nature,” even it is something complex and nobody else knew about it. You can, however, patent a new device that takes advantage of this law of nature. For example, you cannot patent super-conductivity, but you can patent a useful device that uses super-conductivity.

    Even mechanical inventions could be reduced to equations. CAD systems and hardware description languages are such examples. However, these “mathematical” representations have no bearing on the patentability.

    Thus, the “deaf ears” referred to are those practitioners in the field who are following well-established law.

    You don’t have to like current patent law. Many people don’t. European rules, for example, are different that ours. Note that not liking is distinct from not understanding.

    - Registered Patent Agent

    • by Arker ( 91948 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @06:39PM (#35993512) Homepage

      Actually you make a few mistakes. Most importantly, under US law at least, mathematics IS NOT patentable.

      Furthermore software patents are NOT properly analogous to 'mechanical inventions [which] could be reduced to equations' - most obviously because no mechanical invention can actually be reduced to equations. It may *involve* equations, it may be *describable* in equations, certainly, but if it is *reducible* to equations then it is pure math and not patentable.

      Judges and patent examiners may be permitting patents on pure math to issue, but they are doing so in *ignorance* because they dont understand the subject matter, not because the law actually allows it.

  • Old news (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @05:00PM (#35992908)
    Doesn't IBM have a patent on Arithmetic coding []? We crossed the bridge on patenting pure math a long time ago.
  • We could look them up with Hoogle [] or Hayoo [] API searches.

    *And* you'd have a huge bank of open source software coming available as they expired.

  • Those of you familiar with the RSA crypto algorithm will know it boils down to some incredibly simple number theory. ie. Generate two large primes p and q, and compute e and d such that: n = p.q e.d =~ 1 (mod n) All that math is in the patent, and that is the absolute essence of what they are patenting. But they get around this by drawing block diagrams for every possible way to create a communication channel that is encrypted and decrypted using RSA. They then just use the word device in the title, and
  • ...Or will they just decide to fix the inconsistency and make mathematics patentable?

    Please no. I know this was tongue-in-cheek but I honestly wouldn't be surprised. Please, please no.

  • Mathematics well about 99.999% of the math in use today is prior art that is over 100 years old. High level...theoretical mathematics typically only has a practical and applied science/economic purpose/use...value centuries later.

    Also, saying someone has a legal right to a type of math/equation or theory is like saying someone owns all humans (...insanity/silly). Anyone can do 2+2..., if a SCO, Dell, Oracle, CN, EU, TW, US mathematician uses math, there is no reasonable way to say "I DID IT FIRST" or last

"Pull the wool over your own eyes!" -- J.R. "Bob" Dobbs