03 May 2011

Do the Maths

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I like to point out that software patents shouldn't be allowed because (among other reasons) software routines are just algorithms, and algorithms are just maths, which is pure knowledge. Well, a splendid chap has gone much further than my vague handwaving, and *shown* this explicitly:

Google has just been ordered to pay $5M for infringing patent 5,893,120 (hereafter "Patent 120"). This patent covers a very simple data structure and the algorithms for manipulating it. In fact much of the text of the patent is a pseudo-code implementation in a Pascal-like language. So I thought I would provide a practical demonstration of what has, until now, been a theoretical proposition; the reduction of a software patent to set of mathematical formulae.


Of course a judge isn't going to know the Lambda Calculus from a lump of rock, but that is what expert witnesses are for. Get a professor of mathematics from an internationally recognised university to testify that these are formulae in the Lambda Calculus, and that the Lambda Calculus is part of mathematics, and you have a sound legal proof. The only thing the patent holders could do is find another professor to testify differently.

Of course, that doesn't stop the lawyers from trying to wriggle out by saying that the patent is for the *application* of maths, and therefore is perfectly legitimate, because it leaves the "knowledge" untouched.

But what this conveniently overlooks is that such patents block anyone else from using that maths in the given field (and knowing lawyers, probably in other fields, too). That effectively turns knowledge into an abstract, useless, glass bead game.

If knowledge is to have any relevance in the real world, it must be applicable there, and not just disembodied and theoretical. Thus these software patents - even if "only" on the application of maths - remain monopolies on knowledge itself; and that way lies madness.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

No comments: