Patenting Mathematical Formulas: What’s The Harm? A thought-experiment in algebra

Paul B. de Laat


Patenting of software-related inventions is on the increase, especially in the US. Mathematical formulas and algorithms, though, are still sacrosanct. Only under special conditions may algorithms pass as statutory matter: if not solely a mathematical exercise, or linked with physical reality, or otherwise limited to specific uses. In this article it is argued that blank acceptance is to be preferred. On one condition only: formulas and algorithms should be protected including the proof that supports it. This argument is developed by conducting a thought-experiment. After analyzing the development of algebra from the 16th up to the 20th century (in particular , the solution to the cubic equation), we ask ourselves what the effects would have been on the development of mathematics as a science if a patent regime had been in force protecting some or all elements of (‘cubic’) algebra.