League For Programming Freedom
Programming Freedom, Number 11
February 1995

Programming Freedom is the Newsletter of The League For Programming Freedom, 
1 Kendall Square #143, P.O. Box 9171, Cambridge, MA 02139.  Send email to: 
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please contact the author for permission.

Table of Contents

Dropping the Boycott
Letter to the Patent Office, Professor Donald Knuth
Election Results
Software Patent = Protection Racket, Paul Rubin

Dropping the Boycott

The board of the League For Programming Freedom recently decided to drop the 
boycott of Apple.  The consensus was that the boycott had outlived its 
usefulness, and it was time to move on to fresher issues.  Past LPF 
president Chris Hofstader stated "The Apple boycott has run its course.  It 
has served its purpose, and now it is time to turn our attentions to other 

FYI- This past September Apple appealed the judgement against it to the U.S. 
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Four days later that court upheald 
the earlier decision.  Appple is said to be considering petitioning the 
Supreme Court for a wit of certioari.  We'll continue keep you informed on 
any developments in this case.

Letter to the Patent Office
>From Professor Donald Knuth

Professor Donald Knuth of Stanford University is the world's leading
authority on algorithms.  His magnum opus, the three volume work the
"The Art of Computer Programming," is the most important reference
work on algorithms.  Knuth also developed the mathematical text
formatter TeX and the idea of "literate programming".  Supporting
evidence of Knuth's position are the following distinctions:

 National Medal of Science
 Member, National Academy of Sciences
 Member, National Academy of Engineering
 Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
 Turing Award, Association for Computing Machinery
 18 Honorary Doctorates

The first four of these distinctions are the highest American
awards for scientists.  Since there is no Nobel prize in computing,
the receipt of the Turing award is often regarded as having a
similar status.

Through these honors, Knuth is perhaps the most distinguished living
exponent of the field of computer science.  He is also now a member
of the League for Programming Freedom.

Here is the letter he sent in February 1994 to the Patent Commissioner
on the subject of software patents.

Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks
Box 4
Patent and Trademark Office
Washington, DC 20231

Dear Commissioner:

Along with many other computer scientists, I would like to ask you to
reconsider the current policy of giving patents for computational
processes.  I find a considerable anxiety throughout the community of
practicing computer scientists that decisions by the patent courts and
the Patent and Trademark Office are making life much more difficult
for programmers.

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 be
harmful 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.

I am told that the courts are trying to make a distinction between
mathematical algorithms and nonmathematical algorithms.  To a computer
scientist, this makes no sense, because every algorithm is as
mathematical as anything could be.  An algorithm is an abstract
concept unrelated to physical laws of the universe.

Nor is it possible to distinguish between "numerical" and
"nonnumerical" algorithms, as if numbers were somehow different from
other kinds of precise information.  All data are numbers, and all
numbers are data.  Mathematicians work much more with symbolic entities
than with numbers.

Therefore the idea of passing laws that say some kinds of algorithms
belong to mathematics and some do not strikes me as absurd as the 19th
century attempts of the Indiana legislature to pass a law that the
ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is exactly 3, not
approximately 3.1416.  It's like the medieval church ruling that the
sun revolves about the earth.  Man-made laws can be significantly
helpful but not when they contradict fundamental truths.

Congress wisely decided long ago that mathematical things cannot be
patented.  Surely nobody could apply mathematics if it were necessary
to pay a license fee whenever the theorem of Pythagoras is
employed.  The basic algorithmic ideas that people are now rushing to
patent are so fundamental, the result threatens to be like what would
happen if we allowed authors to have patents on individual words and
concepts.  Novelists or journalists would be unable to write stories
unless their publishers had permission from the owners of the
words.  Algorithms are exactly as basic to software as words are to
writers, because they are the fundamental building blocks needed to
make interesting products.  What would happen if individual lawyers
could patent their methods of defense, or if Supreme Court justices
could patent their precedents?

I realize that the patent courts try their best to serve society when
they formulate patent law.  The Patent Office has fulfilled this
mission admirably with respect to aspects of technology that involve
concrete laws of physics rather than abstract laws of thought.  I
myself have a few patents on hardware devices.  But I strongly believe
that the recent trend to patenting algorithms is of benefit only to a
very small number of attorneys and inventors, while it is seriously
harmful to the vast majority of people who want to do useful things
with computers.

When I think of the computer programs I require daily to get my own
work done, I cannot help but realize that none of them would exist
today if software patents had been prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.
Changing the rules now will have the effect of freezing progress at
essentially its current level.  If present trends continue, the only
recourse available to the majority of America's brilliant software
developers will be to give up software or to emigrate.  The
U.S.A. will soon lose its dominant position.

Please do what you can to reverse this alarming trend. There are far
better ways to protect the intellectual property rights of software
developers than to take away their right to use fundamental building

Donald E. Knuth
Professor Emeritus

Election Results

The League elected its officers and board members during the annual meeting 
which occurred on December 21, 1994.  Dean Anderson is the LPF's new 
president, while Aubrey Jaffer retained his post as treasurer.  Rich 
Hilliard, LPF email coordinator, was elected clerk.  Richard Stallman is 
joined on the board by newcomers Lile Elam and Gordon Irlam.  Chris 
Hofstader moves into the board's ex officio as past president.  

Software Patent = Protection Racket
By Paul Rubin

While at an Internet Engineering Task Force meeting a couple months
ago, I attended a session where various speakers talked about
different secured IP schemes.  Most of these used public key
cryptography in one way or another.

One of the methods, presented by Jim Burton, used RSA signatures for
authentication and Diffie-Hellman key exchange for key setup.  Burton
mentioned that his scheme depended on only two patents (RSA and
Diffie-Hellman).  The whole room applauded when he added that his
company asserted no patents of its own about the system he was about
to describe.

During the question and answer period I asked him why he had not used
El-Gamal for authentication and Eric Hughes' key transmission protocol
for key setup, since El-Gamal depends at worst on a patent which
expires much sooner than the RSA patent, while Hughes' method is
apparently not patented at all.  Burton replied apologetically that he
had to be concerned with even remote possibilities of patent
infringement since he was selling a software product incorporating his
scheme.  He had worked out a financially acceptable deal with RSADSI,
and as part of the contract they had promised to defend him against
any claims of patent infringement by their package.  He felt that this
indemnification was far more important than any cost savings or
technical advantages that could be gotten from any implementation that
didn't come with such a guarantee.  He bought the RSADSI package
because of the legal defense that its vendor was willing to provide,
rather than because it was the best or cheapest tool for the job.

RSADSI's product here is therefore litigation insurance rather than
technology.  Software suppliers in other areas in other areas are also
being pressured more and more by their customers to provide similar
insurance with their products.  If you're a software developer without
the resources to promise free legal defense to every one of your
customers against potentially thousands of patent holders who might
decide someday that your product resembles something in their patent,
you are likely to find yourself having to turn away more and more
business as the number of software patents grows.  This is yet another
way that software patents hurt small developers, which has not
received widespread attention so far.

What is interesting to note in the RSA case is that the claims of
patent infringement that RSADSI promises to defend its customers
against could, in practice, only come from RSA itself.  If there is a
more precise definition of a protection racket than this, I haven't
heard it.

Paul Rubin is a longtime LPF activist, volunteer and sometime 
contributor to Programming Freedom.