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[...] essayer dtablir une distinction entre des algorithmes mathmatiques et des algorithmes non mathmatiques [...] na aucun sens, car tous les algorithmes sont aussi mathmatiques que possible. Un algorithme est un concept abstrait sans relation avec les lois physiques de lunivers. [...] Le Congrs a sagement dcid il y a longtemps que les objets mathmatiques ne pouvaient tre brevetables. Il est sr que personne ne pourrait plus faire de mathmatiques sil y avait obligation de payer un droit de licence ds que le thorme de Pythagore est utilis. Les ides algorithmiques de base que les gens sempressent aujourdhui de breveter sont si fondamentales, que la consquence menace de ressembler ce qui pourrait se passer si nous autorisions les crivains dtenir des brevets sur les mots et les concepts. Les romanciers ou les journalistes seraient incapables dcrire des histoires moins que leur diteur nobtienne la permission des propritaires des mots. Les algorithmes sont exactement la base des logiciels comme les mots le sont pour les crits, car ils sont les briques fondamentales ncessaires pour construire des produits intressants. Quarriverait-il si les avocats pouvaient breveter leurs mthodes de dfense, ou si les cours suprmes de justice pouvaient breveter leurs jurisprudences ?

Here is the letter Donald Knuth sent in February 1994 to the Patent Commissioner on the subject of software patents.

Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks
Box 4
Patent and Trademark Office
Washington, DC 20231

Dear Commissioner:

Along with many other computer scientists, I would like to ask you to
reconsider the current policy of giving patents for computational
processes. I find a considerable anxiety throughout the community of
practicing computer scientists that decisions by the patent courts and the
Patent and Trademark Office are making life much more difficult for

In the period 1945-1980, it was generally believed that patent law did not
pertain to software. However, it now appears that some people have
received patents for algorithms of practical importance - e.g., Lempel-Ziv
compression and RSA public key encryption - and are now legally preventing
other programmers from using these algorithms.

This is a serious change from the previous policy under which the computer
revolution became possible, and I fear this change will be harmful for
society. It certainly would have had a profoundly negative effect on my
own work: For example, I developed software called TeX?? that is now used to
produce more than 90% of all books and journals in mathematics and physics
and to produce hundreds of thousands of technical reports in all scientific
disciplines. If software patents had been commonplace in 1980, I would not
have been able to create such a system, nor would I probably have ever
thought of doing it, nor can I imagine anyone else doing so.

I am told that the courts are trying to make a distinction between
mathematical algorithms and nonmathematical algorithms. To a computer
scientist, this makes no sense, because every algorithm is as mathematical
as anything could be. An algorithm is an abstract concept unrelated to
physical laws of the universe.

Nor is it possible to distinguish between "numerical" and "nonnumerical"
algorithms, as if numbers were somehow different from other kinds of
precise information. All data are numbers, and all numbers are data.
Mathematicians work much more with symbolic entities than with numbers.

Therefore the idea of passing laws that say some kinds of algorithms belong
to mathematics and some do not strikes me as absurd as the 19th century
attempts of the Indiana legislature to pass a law that the ratio of a
circle's circumference to its diameter is exactly 3, not approximately
3.1416. It's like the medieval church ruling that the sun revolves about
the earth. Man-made laws can be significantly helpful but not when they
contradict fundamental truths.

Congress wisely decided long ago that mathematical things cannot be
patented. Surely nobody could apply mathematics if it were necessary to
pay a license fee whenever the theorem of Pythagoras is employed. The
basic algorithmic ideas that people are now rushing to patent are so
fundamental, the result threatens to be like what would happen if we
allowed authors to have patents on individual words and concepts.
Novelists or journalists would be unable to write stories unless their
publishers had permission from the owners of the words. Algorithms are
exactly as basic to software as words are to writers, because they are the
fundamental building blocks needed to make interesting products. What
would happen if individual lawyers could patent their methods of defense,
or if Supreme Court justices could patent their precedents?

I realize that the patent courts try their best to serve society when they
formulate patent law. The Patent Office has fulfilled this mission
admirably with respect to aspects of technology that involve concrete laws
of physics rather than abstract laws of thought. I myself have a few
patents on hardware devices. But I strongly believe that the recent trend
to patenting algorithms is of benefit only to a very small number of
attorneys and inventors, while it is seriously harmful to the vast majority
of people who want to do useful things with computers.

When I think of the computer programs I require daily to get my own work
done, I cannot help but realize that none of them would exist today if
software patents had been prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Changing the
rules now will have the effect of freezing progress at essentially its
current level. If present trends continue, the only recourse available to
the majority of America's brilliant software developers will be to give up
software or to emigrate. The U.S.A. will soon lose its dominant position.

Please do what you can to reverse this alarming trend. There are far
better ways to protect the intellectual property rights of software
developers than to take away their right to use fundamental building

Donald E. Knuth
Professor Emeritus
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