I am stump on why the answer is Copyright because of the code.

Matthew authored an innovative algorithm for solving a mathematical problem, ...... he wants to obtain some sort of intellectual property protection. Which type of protection is best suited to his needs?

D.Trade Secret

I thought it would be patent, since it involve mathematic algorithm. If it just code, I would go with Copyright. Thoughts?


3 Answers 3


A patent protects an invention, which is an idea for an invention that exists on paper. Copyright protects the specific implementation of an idea.

Matthew would not be able to protect his algorithm with copyright alone. Someone else could implement the algorithm with a different program. This would not be a copyright violation, unless it copies the code verbatim from Matthew's program.

A patent, on the other hand, would protect the right to solve a problem in a specific manner. When Matthew obtains a patent on his algorithm, then nobody else is allowed to use that algorithm without Matthew's permission until the patent expired.

The problem, though, is that many jurisdictions do not recognize patents on software algorithms (the European Union, for example). So the patent would only be enforceable in jurisdictions which do.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article on Software Patents.

  • Patents protect inventions, they don't protect ideas. Ideas are ten a penny, turning them into a patent is hard work.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 22, 2020 at 16:48
  • @gnasher729 Better?
    – Philipp
    Mar 22, 2020 at 16:54
  • No. An "abstract idea on paper" cannot be patented. You have to be able to actually build the invention, and then it must do something useful.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 22, 2020 at 20:10
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    @phoog ...and yet they sometimes don't realize that they are reading a patent for a perpetual motion machine and grant the patent anyway. How would that be possibel if a working prototype would be required? Shouldn't they see that the machine does not work and reject the patent? No, because a prototype is not required. That's the point I am trying to make here.
    – Philipp
    Apr 22, 2020 at 8:37

This is difficult. The problem is that a mathematical algorithm isn't patentable. You can patent an invention that wouldn't work without that algorithm, but not the mathematical algorithm.

For example, MP3 compression has been patented, but FFT (the mathematical algorithm behind it) hasn't.

Matthew has copyright protection automatically. He can patent a machine that uses his algorithm. He can use trade secrets by building a product and not telling anyone the mathematical algorithm that it needs to work. Using trademarks to protect a product is worthwhile. And since you didn't mention the country, in Germany laws against unfair competition would protect him against competitors (but not against using the algorithm for a product that doesn't compete with his).

  • The distinction between MP3 compression and FFT is not a good one. The Coley-Tukey algorithm was published in 1965 and later found to be a rediscovery of an algorithm by Gauss, so it predates software patents. MP3 was not patented as such, but various companies claimed to have patents on various algorithms needed for encoding and decoding it. Apr 22, 2020 at 10:19

It' s a patent. "Algorithm patents are patents for math that describe a particular process and purpose. This means that the patented algorithm can't just cover all particular uses of an algorithm, but rather must cover a single particular algorithm. One common test is to turn the algorithm into a single electronic circuit, which must differentiate itself from other circuits. Since these kinds of algorithms make our computerized society function, these patents are a necessary part of maintaining that society."


  • This answer is correct. In addition (or alternatively), you could copyright the code, but this would be a narrower scope of protection. An infringer could easily get around the copyright by making some minor changes to the code, or by coding the algorithm in a different language. But, copyrights are considerably less expensive to obtain than patents.
    – mti2935
    Mar 22, 2020 at 14:21
  • I am studying for CISSP exam. This is in the Law section of Domain one. I am seeking CISSP answer.
    – KC Chan
    Mar 22, 2020 at 14:35
  • It is true that "these kinds of algorithms make our computerized society function" but the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit do not seem to understand it. Over the last several years "Alice" and other cases have made it very easy to deny a patent or rip one up as "abstract". Mar 22, 2020 at 17:57
  • "An infringer could easily get around the copyright by making some minor changes to the code..." - no, they couldn't, this would be just as clear a breach of copyright as not changing anything. A person who wants to implement the algorithm must write their own code, not copy-and-edit someone else's, to avoid breaching copyright.
    – user4657
    Mar 22, 2020 at 18:40
  • "Making some change to the code" - absolutely not, because that implies I copied the code and then modified it. Copying is something that only the copyright holder allows, and so is modifying it. Double copyright infringement. To avoid copyright infringement, I have to write the code completely by myself.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 22, 2020 at 20:15

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