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http://web.archive.org/web/20071225193047/http://lpf.ai.mit.edu/Patents/knuth-to-pto.txt

[...] essayer d’établir une distinction entre des algorithmes mathématiques et des algorithmes non mathématiques [...] n’a aucun sens, car tous les algorithmes sont aussi mathématiques que possible. Un algorithme est un concept abstrait sans relation avec les lois physiques de l’univers. [...] Le Congrès a sagement décidé il y a longtemps que les objets mathématiques ne pouvaient être brevetables. Il est sûr que personne ne pourrait plus faire de mathématiques s’il y avait obligation de payer un droit de licence dès que le théorème de Pythagore est utilisé. Les idées algorithmiques de base que les gens s’empressent aujourd’hui de breveter sont si fondamentales, que la conséquence menace de ressembler à ce qui pourrait se passer si nous autorisions les écrivains à détenir des brevets sur les mots et les concepts. Les romanciers ou les journalistes seraient incapables d’écrire des histoires à moins que leur éditeur n’obtienne la permission des propriétaires des mots. Les algorithmes sont exactement à la base des logiciels comme les mots le sont pour les écrits, car ils sont les briques fondamentales nécessaires pour construire des produits intéressants. Qu’arriverait-il si les avocats pouvaient breveter leurs méthodes de défense, ou si les cours suprêmes 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

programmers.

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

blocks.

Sincerely,

Donald E. Knuth

Professor Emeritus

[...] essayer d’établir une distinction entre des algorithmes mathématiques et des algorithmes non mathématiques [...] n’a aucun sens, car tous les algorithmes sont aussi mathématiques que possible. Un algorithme est un concept abstrait sans relation avec les lois physiques de l’univers. [...] Le Congrès a sagement décidé il y a longtemps que les objets mathématiques ne pouvaient être brevetables. Il est sûr que personne ne pourrait plus faire de mathématiques s’il y avait obligation de payer un droit de licence dès que le théorème de Pythagore est utilisé. Les idées algorithmiques de base que les gens s’empressent aujourd’hui de breveter sont si fondamentales, que la conséquence menace de ressembler à ce qui pourrait se passer si nous autorisions les écrivains à détenir des brevets sur les mots et les concepts. Les romanciers ou les journalistes seraient incapables d’écrire des histoires à moins que leur éditeur n’obtienne la permission des propriétaires des mots. Les algorithmes sont exactement à la base des logiciels comme les mots le sont pour les écrits, car ils sont les briques fondamentales nécessaires pour construire des produits intéressants. Qu’arriverait-il si les avocats pouvaient breveter leurs méthodes de défense, ou si les cours suprêmes de justice pouvaient breveter leurs jurisprudences ?

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

programmers.

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

blocks.

Sincerely,

Donald E. Knuth

Professor Emeritus

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