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Patenting an Algorithm?

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So, I woke up the other day with a Eureka, and I tried to get it down as quickly as possible. I have most of it done, but I am stuck on the last part. Then I started to wonder if I can patent this algorithm that I had created.

But first, I did a google search and landed here

One comment said you cannot patent math, and another said that patenting an algorithm is evil.

Initially I didn't think any thing of the actual repercussions of such an idea (because people are good for taking things too far).

But now I have to take some time to consider what they might be:

Questions

1) So, if I were to patent an algorithm, do you think it would be unethical?
2) How much would an algorithm go for? I know it depends, but on what?
3) Do you think a machine that can use the algorithm to do something is more valuable than the algorithm itself?
4) If the source code of a game can be protected under copyright law, then doesn't it make sense that an algorithm can be protected under the same law( besides, what makes a game different from the next other than the way in which the game was coded, other than art assets)?
5) Do you think that perhaps the value a lot of games have are more so the processes used to make the games? Perhaps some algorithm used to solve a game problem could be used in the medical field to save someones life?

I believe that the root of the algorithm can be applied to a lot of fields, but right now, I am still working it out to see how valuable it can actually be. Edited by Tutorial Doctor

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1) So, if I were to patent an algorithm, do you think it would be unethical?
2) How much would an algorithm go for? I know it depends, but on what?
3) Do you think a machine that can use the algorithm to do something is more valuable than the algorithm itself?
4) If the source code of a game can be protected under copyright law, then doesn't it make [sense] that an algorithm can be protected under the same law
4.b. ( besides, what makes a game different from the next other than the way in which the game was coded, other than art assets)?
5)a. Do you think that perhaps the value a lot of games have are more so the processes used to make the games?
5.b. Perhaps some algorithm used to solve a game problem could be used in the medical field to save someones life?


1. There will be people who think so (there are people who think patenting is unethical). What is your priority? Universal goodwill? Or to make profitable products?
2. No more than it's worth to the licensee.
3. If you think you can make more profit by incorporating the algorithm into hardware, then go for it. If you don't, then don't.
4.a. Only the exact precise string of source code can be copyrighted - if someone can produce the same effect using different source code that accomplishes the same thing, then copyright doesn't prevent that.
4.b. Can you name two games that play precisely the same and sound the same, and only the art assets are different?
5.a. Huh?
5.b. Perhaps.

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Well, looks like a lot of research has gone into this, and I am sure that buried somewhere behind mountains of text, is something similar, if not more advanced than my small little Eureka.

I guess that's what happens when you try to patent ideas eh? Hehe.

But the subject matter is really intriguing though. Thanks for the responses.

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1. I think that software patents are a bad thing for various reasons (e.g., that it is basically a patent on maths; that the current system is so broken with how many trivial patents that are granted), though everyone has their own opinion. Also consider, if it's an idea you thought up in a flash, why should that prevent anyone else doing the same thing when they might reasonably think of the same idea? We're not talking about something that took billions of dollars of investment (which is an argument put forward for drug patents - the same rarely applies to software patents). And how many existing ideas and algorithms do you use when you write software - just imagine if all of those were patented...

Though there is the problem that the current system (at least in the US) forces companies to patent as much as possible, otherwise they risk being sued by other companies, and have nothing to defend with. So I tend to judge people/companies by their legal actions.

Are you going into business with a product? Or if not, what do you hope to gain?

3. Writing the patent for "a machine which runs an algorithm" rather than the algorithm is a way of getting round countries that don't allow pure software patents. In that sense, it can be more valuable, though it seems rather a loophole to me, and not something that I would consider more valuable (the "machine" is a pre-existing invention, and running an algorithm on it is trivial).

4. Nope, because algorithms can't be copyrighted, just like rules and ideas, but a particular implementation (written rules, source code) can be. Indeed, the fact that source code is already covered by copyright (and there is no reason for a company to even release it) is an argument for why software patents seem unnecessary.

What makes a game different other than art? All sorts of things, such as level design, storyline, characters, all of which generally can be protected. And what's wrong with games being similar? If that wasn't allowed, you can kiss goodbye to a large number of games, just because someone else happened to get there first with a particular idea or game mechanic.

5. Indeed, but maybe not if it was patented :)

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The whole "get there first" thing Is the the new law on patents. I had an idea about 15 years after I was born, but a patent that claimed rights to not only the ideas they had, but to any potential creation someone could make baring similarity to their idea, was patented the year I was born.

And that patent was, and is sat on to this day. So, I figured that is how the patent system was set up (crooked), and the only way to protect yourself from patent trolls or innovation destroyers is to patent your idea so no one sues you for patenting "their" idea.

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Beware that (software) patent rules are different in every country, as an example in European Union there are a lot of restrictions compared to the (tragicomic) US laws: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_patents_under_the_European_Patent_Convention.
 
1) IMO, software patent should be globally banned (remark: software patents != copyrighted source code.... and just to note: I'm not a FOSS's fan).
2) Nothing in practice and in most of cases.
3) A technical implementation of a problem is different from trying to shield a mathematical proof, however it depends of what are you trying to shield and where.
4) Nope, a source code is a concrete implementation of an idea, or more ideas, created by people's abilities, an algorithm is an abstract and a mathematical representation of something that exists per se by "nature" (or by God/s for some drunk people).
5a) What? Are you asking about software engineering? I think a value of a game resides in the final product and not in development methods used to publish it.
5b) Most of algorithms used in games are well known by public. I honestly I don't see a strong relationship between game programming/engineering with medicine, but since my "medical" knowledges are at high-school level, I cannot have a strong opinion about that. Of course everything could be possible..
 
 

I have a close friend who spent some time in patent law. Regardless of the issues you're asking about, there's something very important to understand: patents have no value if you can't defend/prosecute them. Let's say you have a patent on your algorithm and somebody is using it without your permission. What are you going to do about it? Nothing, that's what. Because you don't have the quarter million dollars to start the case.

 

That's a good point to start : D

 

Anyway in most countries should be suffice adding a "nil" command to the guilty algorithm to fix the issue.

Edited by Alessio1989

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1) IMO, software patent should be globally banned

 

I disagree.  However, I do believe that there are too many frivolous patents.

 

But consider the whole idea of why patents exist in the first place, which is to allow you to be compensated for time and money that you spend developing a process, and stop others from making money off your R & D.  Without patents, almost nobody would do R & D work.  This applies just as much to software as it does to anyone else.  If a software company spends two years and several million dollars developing new algorithms, they should be allowed to protect that investment, otherwise anyone who can disassemble code can duplicate it at almost no cost.

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Without patents, almost nobody would do R & D work. This applies just as much to software as it does to anyone else. If a software company spends two years and several million dollars developing new algorithms, they should be allowed to protect that investment, otherwise anyone who can disassemble code can duplicate it at almost no cost.

Thats the argument trotted out by corporate software houses (who have huge sunken costs in maintaining this harmful status quo), but it's demonstrably false.
Patents in the video game industry are very rare, with the usual reaction to them being 'outrage', rather than 'pride' as in business programming's endless frivolous patents (yes, if you start attacking game developers with patents, expect the public to hate on you strongly).

Despite the fact that we avoid patenting our work, we still do tonnes of new R&D. Not only are we constantly researching and innovating the technology that we use, we also go out of our way to freely share our discoveries at conferences such as GDC, unemcumbered by patents!
What we don't do is share our implementations of these ideas - at least not entirely - we do often share small portions of the implementations to help spread the idea.

Apparently our industry should be technologically stagnating, due to there being "no incentive" to research and develop new tech... But the total opposite is true! The state of the art in video game technology is advancing rediculously rapidly and cooperatively between competing studios. The incentive is in being on the bleeding edge of tech, as the imitatiors are always playing catch-up and using 2nd rate tech anyway.

The advantage is that R&D becomes cheaper for everyone, so we can actually do more of it! Instead of having internal retreats with the legal team to craft, break, find the loopholes in, and re-craft patents for our work, we instead do nothing, or upload our PowerPoint slides to the world. Instead of reading the patents of others and spending days planning how to circumvent them (while also reverse engineering their ideas), we instead attend conferences or download PPTs. Instead of paying huge licensing costs, we just deal with being a few years behind the curve as we roll our own implementations. In the process, maybe we either almost catch up, or maybe we push the idea further and provide a positive contribution back to the original author and everyone else who's interested. We benefit through having cheaper R&D costs - we can focus on one area to push forward, while cheapl playing catch up in other areas. Startups benefit by actually being able to enter the industry withou requiring millions up front in "protection money". The industry benefits from that by the supply of jobs being more stable, which results in the supply of talent being higher, which means we can continue to make quality products. The consumer benefits from every game being of higher quality due to the huge amount of industry-wide R&D that results in the technological bar bein raised year after year.

I know this might be tantamount to communism or treason or something, but I'll be damned if it aint working for us!

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Most people say here that idea/algorithm cannot be copyrighted, only exact line of code, however isn't H264 copyrighted? It probably isn't too hard to find information how it works then write own implementation, but I think I remember VLC having problems with that patent. Am I mistaken?

Edited by Zaoshi Kaba

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Copyright covers the expression of the idea. It covers the source code, the executable, and so on. If somebody copies and distributes the source code, or uses it in their own programs that work similarly and then distribute it, they are violating copyright.

Patent covers processes, machines, and devices. It can potentially cover the process of encoding, the mechanics behind it. If somebody came up with a similar process for encoding and decoding that is too similar to the patented process, they are violating a patent.


If someone used a 'clean room' implementation, that is they came up with a H264 implementation on their own based on descriptions given to them, they would not be violating copyright (because it is their own expression of the idea) but they would likely be violating the patent (because they used the process).

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Silly example, but entertain it a little:

Two kids are running their own lemonade stand, one kid on the opposite side of the street as the other.

Would one kid ever have a legal case against the other either for the similarities of the way the lemonade is made, or for the perhaps exact design of the lemonade stand, or for the perhaps strangely identical taste of the lemonade?

If one kid researched everything there is to know about lemons and sugar to produce the best lemonade, and the other kid mimicked him, does he then have a right to sue?

On the playground I remember the words "that's not fair!"

The way Apple and Samsung, and these big companies are, it's like children on a playground. You almost have to protect yourself. If your idea gets big enough, here come the trolls.

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Would one kid ever have a legal case against the other either for the similarities of the way the lemonade is made, or for the perhaps exact design of the lemonade stand, or for the perhaps strangely identical taste of the lemonade?

If one kid researched everything there is to know about lemons and sugar to produce the best lemonade, and the other kid mimicked him, does he then have a right to sue?


Commercial food recipes fall under the realm of "trade secrets." The recipe for KFC - the formula for Coca-Cola.

Design of the lemonade stand falls under trademark (assuming you're talking about logo colors, like McDonald's golden arches).

I recommend you read Patent, Copyright & Trademark; An Intellectual Property Desk Reference
by Stephen Elias & Richard Stim. Nolo.com (Nolo Press), ISBN 0-87337-601-3

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Interesting you should say that Tom. I always likened source-code to secret recipes. Not much of a difference really. Imagine if food restaurants gave away their secret recipe, then others could copy it and go into business selling the same thing. 

 

Yes, this is a perfect analogy (don't know why I didn't think of it earlier). 

 

It is advantageous for a company to keep their recipe secret (for competitive reasons). 

 

Keywords, "recipe" and "formula."I wonder if source-code could fall under "trade secrets" then. It makes more sense that way. 

 

I used the term "Patent" because an algorithm is a process. Even a formula is a process. A recipe is  a process as well (albeit, ingredients are the key parts of the recipe). 

 

So this makes my question about whether the algorithms (processes) are the most valuable parts of a game, rather than the game itself (in terms of patent/copyright law).

 

Chicken is chicken, but KFC chicken is a matter of process. 

 

Thanks for the link. I actually needed something like that a while ago when I was researching design patents. 

Edited by Tutorial Doctor

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You could try and apply for a patent on the method of preparing lemonade / the method of selling a drink via a stand... but hopefully the patent office would reject your application because it's too obvious.

 

Unfortunately, this doesn't happen with software patents. There's millions of really obvious algorithms and data structures that are actually covered by patents -- everything from the linked-list, to sending emoticons over a network, to the 16:9 aspect ratio, to the visualization of a 12-sided dice.

Thankfully most of these patents are held by large corporations who just horde them as weapons of mass destruction, in a kind of cold war against other corporations. If one of them decides to sue over a patent violation, they can pull out a thousand of their own and launch their own lawsuits as a kind of MAD...

 

The actual recipe itself, as it's written on paper is covered by copyright. If I copy your recipe and start up my own stand, there's not much you can do about it (unless you have a patent)... But if I photocopy your recipe and publish it in my own cookbook, then I've committed copyright infringement.

 

Likewise, I can implement any non-patented algorithm as code myself, but I cannot just copy&paste someone elses code.

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Without patents, almost nobody would do R & D work. This applies just as much to software as it does to anyone else. If a software company spends two years and several million dollars developing new algorithms, they should be allowed to protect that investment, otherwise anyone who can disassemble code can duplicate it at almost no cost.

Thats the argument trotted out by corporate software houses (who have huge sunken costs in maintaining this harmful status quo), but it's demonstrably false.
Patents in the video game industry [... snip]


I think this isn't universally applicable. The video games industry has the benefit, that every game is self contained, and that with every game you can tweak/improve your stuff further. This results in a situation, where an "algorithm" is never truly finished. So if you were to patent it, others would either improve it and use the improved version, if the improvement results in a change such that the new algorithm won't infringe the patent anymore or they wouldn't use it because it is falling behind technologically as no one cares to improve it.

In other domains, things are different. Take for example, video coding standards like H264. These are not self contained. You can't release a new standard, or a small update to the standard, every couple of months and declare all blueray players sold up to that date deprecated. When you create the standard it must be top notch, state of the art. Also, you can't just show a couple of power point slides to show the general idea, because you actually want every implementation of that standard ever build to behave exactly the same. You have to provide a reference implementation, which shows exactly every single operation.

I don't know how free codecs like Vorbis and Dirac get developed, but as much as I dislike software patents, I can understand that there are cases, where patents are the only way to cover your development costs.

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In other domains, things are different. Take for example, video coding standards like H264. These are not self contained. You can't release a new standard, or a small update to the standard, every couple of months and declare all blueray players sold up to that date deprecated. When you create the standard it must be top notch, state of the art. Also, you can't just show a couple of power point slides to show the general idea, because you actually want every implementation of that standard ever build to behave exactly the same. You have to provide a reference implementation, which shows exactly every single operation.

if only that were consistent with reality.

 

Most industry-developed standards, including h.264, are developed in committee by a wide group of participating members. These members typically hold patents on some aspect of the technology, and they agree to make that technology available to the standardization group. Why? Because everyone with an IP stake in that particular standard agrees that everyone else with a stake can use it, thus putting all of the members on an even footing and not being required to pay large license fees. This part makes sense.

 

BUT: Let's say you have a patent whose invention is not finally included in the published standard. What happens at this point is you no longer have a stake contributed to the working group, which means you're no longer part of the royalty fee deal. You have to buy a license! Which is expensive. Oops. So what happens when somebody like MPEG-LA get together is not only about choosing the most competent technology. It is also about many groups vying to get as much IP into that standard as possible, regardless of its technical merits. Somewhere at the intersection of technical and financial back-and-forth is where the final standard is set.

 

Vorbis, Dirac, Theora, etc are developed by collaboration between open source volunteers, and groups who were never a party to these big standards discussions. Their argument is that by focusing strictly on technical excellence, rather than engaging in proxy patent battles, they can produce a superior final product. I don't know to what extent that holds up in reality, but certainly Vorbis has very much held its own from a technical standpoint relative to AAC, nevermind the aging and relatively poor MP3 standard. Theora doesn't seem to fair as well. We also have the unusual case of WebP/WebM, where an independent proprietary technology was opened up after the fact. Layered on top is the reality that none of the open codecs have any traction in hardware decoders, which has become more and more of a problem over time.

 

MPEG-LA has also wielded its total contributed patent chest as a weapon against competitors, notably Microsoft's VC-1 in the HD-DVD era.

 

At the end of the day, patents create significant distortions to how things are created, shared, and licensed. Whether those distortions are positive or negative depend on what you're talking about and from what perspective you're looking at it. There's a real sense in the software industry that patents as a whole have created more problems than they've solved.

Edited by Promit

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1) IMO, software patent should be globally banned

 

I disagree.  However, I do believe that there are too many frivolous patents.

 

But consider the whole idea of why patents exist in the first place, which is to allow you to be compensated for time and money that you spend developing a process, and stop others from making money off your R & D.  Without patents, almost nobody would do R & D work.  This applies just as much to software as it does to anyone else.  If a software company spends two years and several million dollars developing new algorithms, they should be allowed to protect that investment, otherwise anyone who can disassemble code can duplicate it at almost no cost.

 

 

Out of interest, do you have examples of patented software algorithms that took years and millions of dollars to develop?

Disassembling source code is something that is going to be a big risk for companies in many cases, even without software patents (e.g., accusations of copyright infringement).

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My own opinion is that 'pure' software patents ought to go away. I would define a 'pure' software patent as one which encodes an algorithm that follows strictly from the intersection of math and of the computer it executes on, and also it would not allow for patents to be granted on the basis of application -- in other words a patent "using X for Y" would not be valid, either X is sufficiently pattentable on its own, or it is not -- whether or not X was applied to a novel problem wouldn't constitute uniqueness.

 

As an example, I don't personally believe that a compression algorithm that follows strictly from math should be patentable, even despite their exceeding cleverness. I see this simply as a side effect of the exploration of math, and I believe that math, once discovered, should not be owned by anyone. However, I believe that a theoretical video compression algorithm that achieved higher perceived visual quality because the algorithm specifically took into account the human visual system should be pattentable. For me, the difference is that integrating a further, specific constraint (rather than opportunity) into the algorithm itself elevates it beyond simple math. There's an additional. non-mechanical observation that's been studied, quantified, and integrated.

 

 

That sort of segues into an example of "using X for Y" that I would prefer to be disallowed. One of the dating websites has a patent on using standard data-mining techniques to find potential matches. Essentially, they claim a patent by labeling the rows and columns of their matrix with things like "likes dogs", instead of using an abstract variable. They would claim that their patent doesn't cover just their specific columns, their weights and their inter-relatedness, but indeed the very idea of labeling the rows and columns with personality traits for the purpose of determining compatibility.

 

Ironically, they have tons of secret sauce -- the additional, non-mechanical observation that's been studied, quantified, and integrated into their algorithm, and that's what I'd have them protect -- via patent, possibly, but perhaps copyright would be sufficient. That's the real value that they've discovered -- relationships like "straight women who like beer, dogs, and movies, statistically, find bearded men more attractive." or whatever. Its the ability to find and integrate those kinds of observations that from the pile of data that gives one dating site and edge over another, not the mechanical process of extracting it using well-known mathematics. To be clear, I don't mean to say that this dating site should instead claim ownership of particular, granular observations, but on the whole. I would probably prefer that this was more of a trade-secret, rather than a patent though.

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The worst "X used for Y" that I've run into was when I workin in gambling. A competitor patented "16:9 aspect ratio for a gambling display", so we were legally obliged to install plastic strips that covered at least one column of pixels in our products at our own expense, of course....
We had some terrible ones ourselves, such as a computer visualization of a 12-sided dice. 12-item reels or snippers - that's fine - but only one campany can let you gamble with 12-sided dice.

We had 400 staff in R&D; to score high on your performance review, you were supposed to lodge 12 patents a year, with no time specifically given to that task. Even a run-of-the-mill game programmer or mathematician should submit one idea from their day-to-day work each month to the legal department.

There was also a similar task to jury duty, where you'd be pulled into a retreat with the legal team and forced to try and find loopholes in their drafts (e.g. "What if they just used 15.99:9 ratio?") so they could make our patents as broad, vague and watertight as possible...

All the ideas patented are obvious to an expert in the field. Most are obvious to a layman! They shouldn't be granted, but the US patent office is horribly broken.

These are not being used to encourage innovation and protect inventor's rights. They're just weapons used by huge businesses to create unfair artificial monopolies and to hobble competitors in whatever underhanded manner possible.

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so they could make our patents as broad, vague and watertight as possible...

 

Exactly. It just gets too political. That is exactly what kept me from even attempting my patent the way it was, that the description of a "very similar" patent was made so broad and vague and watertight, that it covered every idea anyone could possibly have concerning that type of product. Yet, it is not a product, they just sit on the patent. 

 


These are not being used to encourage innovation and protect inventor's rights. They're just weapons used by huge businesses to create unfair artificial monopolies and to hobble competitors in whatever underhanded manner possible.

 

And thus is the result. Of course, big companies don't really care to sue unless you get too big (but you want to get big don't you?), so what to do?

 

Where did it all go wrong? 

 

It is a really hard case, and one main reason that I just don't like the law side of business. 

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1) IMO, software patent should be globally banned

 

I disagree.  However, I do believe that there are too many frivolous patents.

 

But consider the whole idea of why patents exist in the first place, which is to allow you to be compensated for time and money that you spend developing a process, and stop others from making money off your R & D.  Without patents, almost nobody would do R & D work.  This applies just as much to software as it does to anyone else.  If a software company spends two years and several million dollars developing new algorithms, they should be allowed to protect that investment, otherwise anyone who can disassemble code can duplicate it at almost no cost.

 

 

Out of interest, do you have examples of patented software algorithms that took years and millions of dollars to develop?

Disassembling source code is something that is going to be a big risk for companies in many cases, even without software patents (e.g., accusations of copyright infringement).

 

 

I've never worked for a software company so I actually have no idea how much time and money is required to develop anything.  The point I was making is that anyone, irregardless of what industry they are within, should be allowed the use of a system designed to protect their interests.

 

Patents are not the problem.  The problem is the bodies that issue them and how they are used.  This is not just in regard to software patents, but all patents.

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So you don't actually have a single example of what you claim...

Companies can spend large amounts of money developing software, but software is covered by copyright, and copying from disassembling would be copyright infringement.

"The problem is the bodies that issue them and how they are used."

It's all very well saying that the system would work great if only they were issued and used properly - when that never happens. Software patents as they exist in the world today are something I dislike - what about you? If things are actually fixed (not "could be"), great, then I'll think further.

"This is not just in regard to software patents, but all patents."

And I don't like those either - that other things are bad isn't an argument in favour. Though I note that some of the arguments in favour of other patents (billions of dollars of investment, no other means to protect) don't apply to software patents.

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