Newton versus Leibniz: The First IP Infringement Lawsuit

Who is the father of calculus? Well, the British like to credit Sir Isaac Newton with the discovery, but Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was the first to publish articles concerning the topic in 1684. Newton did not publish anything on calculus until his book Opticks came out nearly 20 years later. This spurred a claims war between the Brits and Germans, each of whom thought their genius was the first to come up with the idea of calculus. However, it is perfectly possible that two men endowed with similar gifts used their individual genius to reach the same conclusions. The only matter left to be resolved then, is who got there first, right?

Well, it is more complicated than that and the problem this sort of event creates for American companies has never fully been resolved. Is it possible to plagiarize a mathematical approach to a specific problem? Maybe not. Academics get credit, not IP rights. Is it possible to plagiarize an algorithm using a specific mathematical process? That is where the trouble comes into play. 

IP laws and algorithms

What is an algorithm? Well, it is a recipe for producing an effect on a computer. For example, a screensaver with geometric designs operates on an algorithm. Can you patent this algorithm? It is harder today than it ever has been before—the result of several Supreme Court decisions going the way of defendants. This has resulted in unprecedented industry secrecy when it comes to algorithms. Patents specifically are more difficult to enforce than they once were, forcing corporations to protect their intellectual property using trade secrets as opposed to patent enforcement. This, obviously, requires that companies keep these algorithms a secret. 

A landmark case involving algorithms resulted in a defendant’s verdict. The case was known as Alice Corp v. CLS Bank. In this case, the Supreme Court went on to invalidate a software patent on the grounds that abstract ideas, such as algorithms, cannot be patented. This forced companies to protect trade secrets with secrecy as opposed to enforcing their patents through the courts. The ruling meant that the courts would no longer help companies defend their intellectual property from competitors. 

Is software no longer patentable?

Initially, it was possible to patent software, algorithms, and more. This made it possible for a company to exert a temporary monopoly over the algorithm for its ingenuity. Today, it is much less certain that companies will be able to defend their IP from competitors. Most companies will attempt to claim trade secret rights over the technology. 

This has created an economic environment in which innovation is stalled due to corporate hoarding of innovative technologies. Patent law at least made it possible for companies to disclose the technology and collect on the rights.

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Newton versus Leibniz: The First IP Infringement Lawsuit

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