Patenting maths

I’ve finally watched the excellent video “Patent Absurdity: how software patents broke the system”, and I highly recommend it. It contains several interviews surrounding the Bilski case in the U.S. Supreme Court, with commentary from some of the biggest names in the software patent debate. I will let the video speak for itself, it really is an excellent documentary. I will just mention that the Bilski patent application is for a mathematical method of hedging risks in commodities trading, which was rejected by the USPTO.

I just wanted to highlight one specific section, which to me is the most concise and well-stated demolition of various software and process patents.  In one instance, one of the attorneys for Bilski was asked whether their “invention” was just “picking up the phone and calling other people”. The attorney responds that it could be reduced to that, but it is much more. He says that:

“If you look at Claim 4 (we have these things called claims which describe what the patent is for), there is a long mathematical formula in there that didn’t exist in nature or anywhere in the literature, that these very inventive folks came up with.”

Really? Let us forget for a moment the wider and important question of whether or not it is a good idea to patent mathematical formulae (unsurprisingly, I think it is a very bad idea). Is it true that Bilski’s patent application discovers a new formula? Apparently not.

Ben Klemens, the author of Math You Can’t Use (which I own but haven’t read, and has now moved up my must-read list), has different ideas. He is the one who I think thoroughly destroys several math-related patents. He explains that a the heart of writing software there must be an algorithm that explains the process that will produce a result. These algorithms can take the shape of mathematical formulae, and you just change the variables according to what you want to achieve. Klemens explains for example that there is a common formula in linear algebra called the singular value decomposition (SVD), which is an “important factorization of a rectangular real  or complex matrix, with many applications in signal processing and statistics.” In plain English, it is a tool that can be used to describe various processes in mathematical terms. Klemens explains that it is possible to assign all sorts of variables to the equation, and goes ahead to prove his point. He breaks down the variables in a given SVD and assigns them different values:

We have the matrix:

x1 = sexuality
x2 = cats
x3 = affection

And then the vectors:

J1 = Jane’s responses
J2 = Joe’s responses

Then you substitute the values and enter them into the SVD equation, and you have just derived U.S. patent 6,735,568 which protects a “Method and system for identifying people who are likely to have a successful relationship”, eHarmony’s infamous patent.

Klemens has in one step completely demolished a patent that should have never been awarded, and the worst part of it is that he claims this happens all the time, that there are clever patent attorneys and patent trolls out there who are pretty much conning a mathematically-illiterate system by taking well-understood mathematical equations, assigning values to the variables, and filing for a patent.

For anyone who supports business method patents, this is a point that requires reply. There are thousands of patents out there that are nothing more than a clever mathematical con. Let us hope that Bilski delivers the right result.

66 comments to Patenting maths

  • Les

    You seem to have been emotionally moved by this article you thought I would enjoy reading.

    However, I am not so moved.

    Typical of these kinds of articles,it does not bother telling us what the patent number is.

    Typical of these kinds of articles, it does not tell us if the one-man band is actually infringing on the patented invention.

    Typical of these kinds of articles, it does not recognize that every patent, software related, airplane related, drug related or laser related, likely stops someone from making something or requires someone to pay a royalty. That's how patents spur innovation, by guaranteeing inventors that they wont be undercut by copiers.

    Typical of these articles, it ignores the fact that the terrible patent acquirer acquired the patents in question by buying or licensing them from inventors that could not otherwise enforce their patents themselves.

    If the one-man band is indeed infringing one of their patents and if indeed all they are asking for is a few hundred dollars, they seem to be quire reasonable. The one man band appears to be charging people for his app. Why is it wrong for inventors (or there assigns)to charge people for using their invention?

    Whether I have a stake in the system is irrelevant. If it matters to you, just assume the worst.

    I post when something worth posting occurs to me. 4 postings occurred to me at 4 different times. Why does it bother you so that I posted them separately? I don't think your question is any danger of being pushed off any list.

  • Hah! "emotionally moved" – you're obviously trying to manipulate the "audience" (if anybody else has cared to read this far, that is; which I very much doubt.) No such. I just think that people like you need to be exposed for what they really are. If anybody gullible reads this thread, they will need to know the answer to my simple question.

    Here's another article for you from today's news, since it's obvious by your latest reply (like all the others) that you haven't bothered reading or properly considering ANY of the articles recommended by other readers:
    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/08/a

    Unfortunately, not all patent applicants (and surprisingly few patent holders) can rightly be described as "inventors". You're promoting American folklore.

    Third time of asking. Simple question. Yes or no question required (no evasion please). We've listened long enough that we have a right to know your possible motives for writing what you've written (I've laid mine out on the table some time ago.)

    HAVE YOU GOT A STAKE IN THIS SYSTEM?

  • Les

    Yet another article that doesn't mention the patent number.

    Yet another software guy article that characterizes the patent by the title and ignores the claims.

    They did get two things right though. Software is patentable and this decision is rediculous.

  • Les

    Here are the claims from Patent No. 6029154, the Patent in question:

    1. A method for detecting fraud in a credit card transaction between a consumer and a merchant over the Internet comprising the steps of:

    receiving, from the consumer, credit card information relating to the transaction;

    creating and storing a consistency check mechanism, a history check mechanism, an automatic verification mechanism and an Internet identification mechanism, each of which may indicate whether the credit card transaction is fraudulent based on transaction information, in combination with information that identifies the consumer, in which the transaction information provides the merchant with a quantifiable indication of whether the credit card transaction is fraudulent;

    receiving from the merchant and storing a weight value associated with each of the mechanisms and storing the weight value in association with information that identifies the mechanisms, wherein each of the weight values signifies an importance to the merchant of the value to the credit card transaction of the associated mechanism;

    weighting each value of the plurality of parameters according to the weight values;

    determining whether the credit card information is fraudulent, based upon the values of the parameters and the weight values;

    communicating to the merchant, over the Internet, an indication whether the credit card information is fraudulent;

    wherein the steps of creating and storing further include:

    obtaining other transactions utilizing an Internet address that is identified with the credit card transaction;

    constructing a map of credit card numbers based upon the other transactions; and

    utilizing the map of credit card numbers to determine if the credit card transaction is valid.

    2. A computer readable medium containing program instructions for detecting fraud in a credit card transaction between a consumer and a merchant over the Internet, wherein execution of the program instructions by one or more processors of a computer system causes the one or more processors to carry out the steps of:

    a) obtaining credit card information relating to the transactions from the consumer; and

    b) verifying the credit card information based upon values of a plurality of parameters, in combination with information that identifies the consumer, and that may provide an indication whether the credit card transaction is fraudulent,

    wherein each value among the plurality of parameters is weighted in the verifying step according to an importance, as determined by the merchant, of that value to the credit card transaction, so as to provide the merchant with a quantifiable indication of whether the credit card transaction is fraudulent,

    wherein execution of the program instructions by one or more processors of a computer system causes the one or more processors to carry out the further steps of;

    obtaining other transactions utilizing an Internet address that is identified with the credit card transaction; constructing a map of credit card numbers based upon the other transactions; and

    utilizing the map of credit card numbers to determine if the credit card transaction is valid.

    3. A method for verifying the validity of a credit card transaction over the Internet comprising the steps of:

    a) obtaining other transactions utilizing an Internet address that is identified with the credit card transaction;

    b) constructing a map of credit card numbers based upon the other transactions and;

    c) utilizing the map of credit card numbers to determine if the credit card transaction is valid.

    http://www.google.com/patents?id=ZcMDAAAAEBAJ&amp

    As I suspect you can see, contrary to the assertion in the latest article you asked me to read, "anyone who tried to detect fraud by tracking past transactions would" NOT "infringe the patent." For example, claim 1 involves creating and storing creating and storing a consistency check mechanism, a history check mechanism, an automatic verification mechanism and an Internet identification mechanism. It also involves storing a weight value associated with each of the mechanisms and storing the weight value in association with information that identifies the mechanisms, wherein each of the weight values signifies an importance to the merchant of the value to the credit card transaction of the associated mechanism.

    The claimed method also involves determining whether the credit card information is fraudulent, based upon the values of the parameters and the weight values…I assume there are plenty of ways to detect fraud by tracking past transactions that don't involve all those particulars.

    Claim 3 appears a bit broader but still requires

    a) obtaining other transactions utilizing an Internet address that is identified with the credit card transaction;

    b) constructing a map of credit card numbers based upon the other transactions and;

    c) utilizing the map of credit card numbers to determine if the credit card transaction is valid.

    I don't know what a map of credit card numbers is, but I suspect it is defined in detail in the specification. If that has been done before, then the claim should be rejected based on that prior art, not on the none-sense issued by the court.

  • Did you know that the longer your posts are, the more convincing they are? ESPECIALLY if you put numbered bullet-points in them???

    Here's some more reading material for you:

    http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2008/07/book-r

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/09/s

  • Les

    Those aren't numbered bullet points. They are claims of patents.

    Here's a discussion of a book for you to read:

    http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2011/10/book-revi

    Short enough for you?

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