Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Knuth to PTO

On the question of leaving things in as good a shape as you found them, a few clippings from Donald Knuth's February 1994 letter to the Patent Office:

"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 beharmful 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."

Many of today's computing industry titans skyrocketed to prominence in an industry largely free from software patents. The metaphorical beach was undeveloped. Had the previous beach dwellers been as aggressive in seeking patents, I wonder how many of these titans would have succeeded. Perhaps they would have all been sued into oblivion by mainframe and minicomputer manufacturers. The beach is different now.


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