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At GrokLaw: Donald Knuth's 2009 letter against software patents

From Wikipedia:

Knuth has been called the "father" of the analysis of algorithms, contributing to the development of, and systematizing formal mathematical techniques for, the rigorous analysis of the computational complexity of algorithms, and in the process popularizing asymptotic notation.

In addition to fundamental contributions in several branches of theoretical computer science, Knuth is the creator of the TeX computer typesetting system, the related METAFONT font definition language and rendering system, and the Computer Modern family of typefaces.

A prolific writer and scholar, Knuth created the WEB/CWEB computer programming systems designed to encourage and facilitate literate programming, and designed the MMIX instruction set architecture.

Groklaw article:

The letter (pdf):

The Letter text below:

Donald E. Knuth
Professor Emeritus of
The Art of Computer Programming

Computer Science
[address, phone]

24 April 2009

Alison J. Brimelow
President, European Patent Office
80298 Munich, Germany

Dear Ms Brimelow,

A friend in Europe just told me that you are interested in "amicus curiae" letters to explain why so many computer scientists around the world have long been alarmed about patent trends, and that you hope to receive them by 30 April. I hope this letter reaches you in time; I could not send it by FedEx, having no complete address.

Enclosed is a copy of a letter that I wrote to the US Patent Commissioner in 1994; I believe it is self explanatory. Also enclosed is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Technical University of Munich in 2001, where I gave a somewhat more nuanced view of extremely unusual cases in which algorithms or even mathematical constants might conceivably be patentable in my view. [The latter remarks occur near the end of a rather long lecture; I have highlighted the relevant information, on page 324, for your convenience.]

Basically I remain convinced that the patent policy most fair and most suitable for the world will regard mathematical ideas (such as algorithms) to be not subject to proprietary patent rights. For example, it would be terrible if somebody were to have a patent on an integer, like say 1009, so that nobody would be able to use that number "with further technical effect" without paying for a license. Although many software patents have unfortunately already been granted in the past, I hope that this practice will not continue in future. If Europe leads the way in this, I expect many Americans would want to emigrate so that they could continue to innovate in peace.


Donald E Knuth
Professor of The Art of Computer Programming

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