Business asks: Can mathematics be patented?

Did prime numbers exist before the big bang? Were mathematical formulas invented or simply discovered by man? These fundamental questions are now being asked by business in the battle to decide whether software can be patented or not.

At present not all software can be patented, due to its dependence on mathematics. Patents are granted for inventions, yet most mathematical formulas are considered to be abstract ideas, not inventions. As patents are territorial in nature these rules do vary from country to country; some countries grant software patents, some don’t. For example in South Korea, software is considered patentable and many patents directed towards “computer programs” have been issued. While in India, a clause to include software patents was quashed by the Indian Parliament in April 2005. In the U.K. patent law is interpreted to have the same effect as the European Patent Convention so that “programs for computers” are at present unable to be patented.

In the countries where patents are granted, they mean big money. Mathematics powers the algorithms that drive computer software, and software is big business, worth over $300 billion a year to the global economy.

David Edwards from the University of Georgia in Athens points out that the debate over patents boils down to this difference between discovery and invention. He argues that because abstract mathematical ideas are regarded as “discoveries”, the system is fundamentally Platonic – and broken.

“There is no economic basis for the distinction between discovery and invention,” he told me. “Economically speaking, the difference between discovery and invention should be done away with.” He argues patents should be granted for every new formula and algorithm, including those that power computer software. Such a change would jump-start innovation. “If math were patentable, then you could have independent groups of mathematicians form a group or small company and support themselves that way,” he says.

His position is extreme, but proponents of software patentability similarly argue that the system fuels growth and rewards people for their work.

Critics, including the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco, say the current patent system actually holds back innovation, because achieving a patent takes years and requires tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, EFF argues that the US Patent Office fails to identify true inventions, resulting in “a flood of bad patents on so-called inventions that are unoriginal, vague, overbroad, and/or so unclear that bad actors can easily use them to threaten all kinds of innovators”. It has found patents issued for such basic tasks as sorting Facebook friends or even purchasing a book with a single click – neither new nor original inventions. The beneficiaries of the system, they argue, are patent lawyers, not the general public.

Source The New Scientist, Financial, European Patent Office


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