Stupid Patent Of The Month: A Patent On Using Mathematical Proofs

from the break-out-your-wff-'n-proof dept

In some fields, software bugs are more than the proverbial pain in the neck. When software has to ensure that an airplane lands safely, or that a pacemaker keeps operating, there's no room for error.

The idea that mathematical proofs could be used to prove that software is error-free has been around since the 1970s, and is known as "formal verification." But like a lot of technologies that some visionaries saw coming, it took time to develop. In recent years, computing power has become cheap enough for formal verification to become practical for more software applications.

Unfortunately, last month, the field had a monkey wrench thrown into it, in the form of U.S. Patent No. 10,109,010, which the patent office awarded to a U.K.-based company called Aesthetic Integration Ltd.

Claim 1 of the patent describes creating mathematical "axioms"—formal mathematical statements—that describe a computerized trading forum. The patented method then describes analyzing, with a "computer assessment system … the mathematical axioms that describe the operation of the trading forum." In other words, the patent describes using formal proofs to check for bugs in a "computerized trading forum." It's formal verification—just applied to the financial services industry.

Of course, Aesthetic Integration didn't invent formal verification, nor did the company invent the idea of software powering a "trading forum." The company has apparently created software that utilizes formal verification in the financial services space, and that software might be perfectly good. But the Patent Office has effectively allowed the company to patent a whole sector of formal verification.

To be fair, the '010 patent appears to reflect some advanced and difficult programming by Aesthetic Integration. But that does not mean it should be patentable. Consider the following analogy: there are no 50 story buildings in Cincinnati. Building a 50 story building in Cincinnati, and making it compliant with seismic safety standards, would be hard work. It would take many engineers a great deal of effort to apply existing techniques to complete the project. You could write a lengthy paper describing that process, which might include lots of complex charts and diagrams. Still, that does not mean a company that completes such a project should then get a monopoly on tall buildings in Cincinnati.

Aesthetic Integration claims to be the first to apply formal verification to trading software. If that's true, the company may get a well-earned competitive advantage by being the first to this market. But it should not get a 20 year monopoly simply for applying programming techniques that the company itself has described as part of a "mature and effective field of science."

Ultimately, the '010 patent reflects a broader problem with Patent Office's failure to apply a meaningful obviousness standard to software patent applications. We have explained before that the Patent Office is all too willing to hand out patents for using known techniques in a particular field. Flow charts and whirligigs can make a concept look new when it isn't—especially when a patent owner fills its application with obscure language and "patentese." The Federal Circuit has also encouraged this through its hyper-formalistic approach to obviousness. The end result is an arms race where people rush to patent routine software development.

As we've said before, patents are simply a bad fit for software. The Patent Office should stop giving out patents on formal verification, or other well-known software processes.

Republished from the EFF's Stupid Patent of the Month series.


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 30 Nov 2018 @ 8:49pm

    Seems legit

    Sure, the ancient greeks invented axioms - but these guys were first to file!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    OGquaker, 1 Dec 2018 @ 2:35am

    Can't let some fool go off half-cocked

    Half of what NASA 'invents' is behind a NASA 'patent', so they control development, or not. AND, almost 0.0 of their IP/patents has Not been covered by six decades of prior art ...I have been reading all of their LATEST endless patent breakthroughs, with tax dollars, since the 1980's. Just subscribe to https://www.techbriefs.com/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 1 Dec 2018 @ 5:09am

    How is this new?

    There is plenty of prior art for the application of formal systems in verifying algorithms. See for example MIT's PS+SE group. Software to verify formal logic systems has been in use for a long time now, and formal systems has been a focus of academic research for well over a decade. The software of evaluating formal systems is well known, and the hard part is developing the system of formal logic to define a problem in question.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sparkydoc (profile), 1 Dec 2018 @ 7:21am

    Stupid patents

    I propose a new party game of trying to come up with a patent stupid enough to be rejected by the patent office. For instance: a gaseous mixture of 78% nitrogen,21% oxygen, 1% argon, and trace amounts of other gases, suitable for sustaining metabolism, inflating objects, and other applications. Once air is patented I could make a fortune!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Dec 2018 @ 7:30am

    I think we found out_of_the_blue, guys!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Feldie47 (profile), 1 Dec 2018 @ 9:29am

    My name is Pyth A. Goras. I have discovered that the squares of the two legs of a right triangle are equal to the square of the third side. I am requesting the U.S. patent office issue me a patent.

    Now I'm going to sue everyone who constructs right triangles: Lego, architects, artists, contractors...

    All right triangles are MINE! MINE! MINE!

    Idiocy rules!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Al Gore-rhythm, 1 Dec 2018 @ 2:23pm

      Re:

      And all INCORRECT triangles are mine!!! :)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Dec 2018 @ 5:49pm

      Re:

      I have discovered that C^2 = A+^2 + B^2 - 2ABCos(theta). My patent is broader and includes your specific case.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        feldie47, 1 Dec 2018 @ 7:16pm

        Re: Re:

        Actually your discovery is a derivative of mine. Your trig slight of hand doesn't arrive for hundreds of years. That nonsense will just add thousands to the inevitable lawsuit!

        Pyth A. Goras

        (and the fact that some Asians knew about this 3,000 years before me is irrelevant)

        Mine, mine, mine,mine.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Col Minor, 1 Dec 2018 @ 8:59pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Sorry, but I patented mine mining already. And also mining mines, because you can't mine a mine , or be mining a mine without infringing on that mine-mining mining-mine patent o'mine, if you don't mind.

          So only I can mine that mine-mining.

          Got it? Mine-mining? Mine!!!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Dec 2018 @ 7:14am

          Re: Re: Re:

          (and the fact that some Asians knew about this 3,000 years before me is irrelevant)

          True, the USA is a first-to-file system.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bhull242 (profile), 1 Dec 2018 @ 4:47pm

    You know, I’ve heard people compare software IP to banning maths, but this is as close as I’ve seen someone patenting math.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Boba Fat (profile), 6 Dec 2018 @ 1:14pm

    To promote the progress of science and useful arts

    Obviously, anything that exists anywhere PLUS teh internets is progress and therefore patentable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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