[OT] Free software versus software idea patents

geremy condra debatem1 at gmail.com
Mon Apr 11 20:17:09 CEST 2011

On Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 2:10 AM, Steven D'Aprano
<steve+comp.lang.python at pearwood.info> wrote:
> On Mon, 11 Apr 2011 00:53:57 -0700, geremy condra wrote:


>> I am extremely skeptical of this argument. Leaving aside the fact that
>> you've randomly decided to drop the "decidable" qualifier here- a big
>> problem in its own right- it isn't clear to me that software and
>> computation are synonymous. Lambda calculus only models computation, and
>> software has real properties in implementation that are strictly
>> dependent on the physical world. Since perfectly predicting those
>> properties would seem to require that you perfectly model significant
>> portions of the physical universe, I think it's quite reasonable to
>> contend that the existence of lambda calculus no more rules out the
>> applicability of patents to software (which I detest) than it rules out
>> the applicability of patents to hardware (which I find only slightly
>> less ridiculous) or other meatspace inventions.
> I agree with all of this: I too detest software patents, and find
> hardware patents problematic but pragmatic. But if there's a reason for
> accepting one and rejecting the other, it's far more subtle than the hand-
> waving about mathematics. I believe that the reason falls more to
> *pragmatic* reasons than *philosophical* reasons: software patents act to
> discourage innovation, while hardware patents (arguably) act to encourage
> it. After all, encouraging innovation is what patents are for.
> M Harris' argument fails right at the beginning:
> "Mathematical processes and algorithms are not patentable (by rule)
> because they are 'natural' and 'obvious'."
> It's not clear to me how the Banach-Tarski paradox can be described as
> 'natural':
>    Using the axiom of choice on non-countable sets, you can prove
>    that a solid sphere can be dissected into a finite number of
>    pieces that can be reassembled to two solid spheres, each of
>    same volume of the original. No more than nine pieces are needed.
>    ... This is usually illustrated by observing that a pea can be
>    cut up into finitely pieces and reassembled into the Earth.
>    http://www.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~alopez-o/math-faq/mathtext/node36.html
> And I think anyone who knows the slightest bit of mathematics would be
> falling over laughing at the suggestion that it is 'obvious'.

I'd quibble with you over terminology here. BTP arises naturally- ie,
without being explicitly constructed- in certain axiomatic systems.
But I get your point.

> Of course, some mathematics is obvious, or at least intuitive (although
> proving it rigorously can be remarkably difficult -- after 4000 years of
> maths, we still don't have an absolutely bullet-proof proof that 1+1=2).

Erm. This is getting a bit far afield, but yes, we do. The statement
you provide above part of Presbuger arithmetic, which is both complete
and decidable.

> But describing mathematics as 'obvious' discounts the role of invention,
> human imagination, ingenuity and creativity in mathematics. There's
> nothing obvious about (say) asymmetric encryption, or solving NP-complete
> problems like the knapsack problem, to mention just two examples out of
> literally countless examples.[1]

Meh. Obvious is in the eye of the beholder, and I doubt we'll wind up
coming up with a satisfying and rigorous definition here. I'd
therefore rest on the concept of 'natural' I outlined earlier, which
would clearly forbid patenting the product of discovery but allow
patenting inventions.

> If it were just a matter of joining the dots, there would be no unsolved
> problems, since Euler would have solved them all 200 years ago.[2]
> Part of the patent problem is that the distinction between discovery of a
> fact (which should not be patentable) and invention (which, at least
> sometimes, should be patentable) is not clear. The iPod existed as a
> Platonic ideal in some mathematical bazillion-dimensional abstract design
> space long before it was invented by Apple; does that make it a discovery
> rather than an invention? On the other hand, it is doing Apple a great
> disservice to ignore their creativity in finding that design point, out
> of the infinite number of almost-iPods that suck[3] or don't work.

I agree. Of course, your post existed as a billion-point platonic
ideal beforehand, so you can't really claim credit (man, Plato figured
*everything* out!), but still.

Geremy Condra

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