Math performs countless functions. Its many formulas explain the forces and processes on our planet and in the universe, help manufacturers create countless goods and guide those engaged in business and financial transactions. You can readily imagine that mathematical formulas may create significant financial rewards for those who hold them.
Inventors of methods and products look to patent law to protect their investments of money, time, intellect and use of mathematics. The exclusive right to use a patented product or process motivates innovation and progress. If you’re an inventor, investor or company official, these realities presents for you the question can you patent a formula. As we explain below, the general rule is that you cannot patent a mathematical formula itself.
Why Can You Not Patent Formulas?
To qualify for a patent, you must have a “new and useful” process, machine or other human-made product. You can’t patent objects and forces that exist in nature, such as light or gravity, because these items are clearly not your creations. Patent law also does not afford anyone the exclusive right to abstract ideas. Mathematical formulas generally fall in the category of abstract intellectual concepts or ideas.
Courts have denied patent status for objects and forces of nature, the mathematical equations that explain them and other abstract intellectual concepts because they are deemed foundations or building blocks of scientific, economic or technological advances. Allowing a person to claim or exercise exclusive rights to mental processes, ideas, knowledge, abstract concepts and the like would stifle the innovation and advances that patent law seeks to promote in the first place.
On these principles, many well-known math formulas do not get the benefit of patents because they explain or model concepts that themselves are not patentable. For example:
Natural Phenomenon: Albert Einstein’s seminal formula for explaining his theory of special relativity, E=mc2 (Energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared), is an example of a math formula that explains naturally-existing phenomenon or law of nature. Equations in this category also calculate temperatures, boiling points, freezing points and gravity. Assigning mathematical formulas to natural laws are effectively different ways of expressing things that are discovered rather than invented.
Human Behavior: Many mathematical formulas attempt to predict or measure human activity. In this camp lie many financial equations and models for calculating interest, returns on investment and hedging. These subjects involve abstract concepts because they serve as fundamental economic or financial principles.
Patenting Applied Math
Patent law does not place all math beyond its protection and benefits.
Remember that patent law affords its benefits for inventions and other “new and useful” machines, processes and products. For many such creations, a math formula represents a significant component. As such, the invention or process you create is an application of the math formula. In other words, you seek to patent the application of the formula rather than the formula itself.
Here are some examples of the applications of mathematical formulas into patentable articles:
*Molding injected based upon equations that set boundaries for molding
*Medical imaging of organ boundaries based upon sound wave data
*Software and machines that rely on mathematical formulas for navigation
*Educational kits using mathematical formulas and principles
*Methods to improve seismic resolutions for natural resource exploration
*Encrypting messages or communications between computers
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office publishes examples and hypotheticals on issues such as whether a claim involving a math formula is an application of the formula or an attempt to patent an abstract concept. These offer patent examiners and those involved in applying for patents guidance.
Can You Patent a Formula When It is Used In or For Software?
The matter of applying or using formulas appears if you wish to patent a computer or a digital device application. Software that runs on math formulas can qualify if it produces something “unique” and “tangible.”
Patent examiners often focus on whether the software is required to perform any of the steps of the calculation. Under the “mental steps” approach, a mathematical calculation does not qualify for a patent if all of the steps can be performed without the computer or software application. In other words, if pencil and paper can perform what the computer or software would do, then the application involves purely mental steps and is not patentable. This rule follows the rational that something you can do with pencil and paper is an abstract idea rather than a concrete application.
Why It Matters If You Can Patent Something With a Formula
The question can you patent a formula has significant implications for the inventor and others. A patent gives its holder the exclusive right to the process or invention for multiple years. Thus, a patent, like other intellectual property, can prove to be a very lucrative asset.
Patent law does not restrict its benefits to the inventor. As with other types of property, patents and other intellectual property enjoys transferability. Valuation of patent factors into subjects such as the purchase of a business, the acquisition by another company or party of the patent or the inventor obtaining capital for the business.
How Can We Help?
At GHB, we harness our intellectual property development talents and services to help you craft a patent application that shows you want to patent an invention, not merely a math equation. Seeking a patent requires carefully explaining the processes and the products you want to protect so as to get approval and protection against objections and potential infringement by third parties. As part of the patent application or as a standalone service, we search patents to make sure you do not embark on something already patented.
In addition to intellectual property development, we analyze your patent portfolio and valuation of patents to aid in business acquisitions and other transactions.
Contact us for your needs in obtaining, protecting and realizing the economic fruits of your patents and other intellectual property rights.
Want more info on our IP consulting services? Contact us today!
GHB Intellect is a full-service intellectual property consulting and engineering services firm. With a growing cadre of hundreds of industry-seasoned experts & professionals, as well as access to full suites of design and testing equipment, we specialize in high-tech, science, and innovation.