# Donald Knuth: Mathematical Ideas, or Algorithms, Should Not Be Patented

Jun 05, 2009, 00:04 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Pamela Jones)

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"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."

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