April 19, 2019
Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. But the garage workshop, with the lone genius struggling to create a device that will change the world, is mostly a thing of the past. Today, building a better mousetrap requires the resources of an industrial giant and a laboratory with hundreds or even thousands of researchers.
Inventions based on mathematics are the exception, for mathematical invention requires nothing more costly than a notebook and pencil. And while you can't patent a mathematical formula, you can patent a device that uses a mathematical formula. In some cases, the mathematics is dauntingly complex, but in a surprising number of cases, the mathematics is so very elementary that any mathematics student could have secured the patent.
We'll take a look at the mathematics behind some recent patents, in fields ranging from web services, to advertising, to online dating, to career advising. Along the way, we'll confront an important problem: Patents are issued for devices, not for how the device is used. But the heart and soul of mathematics is its generalizability, so issuing a patent based on a mathematical formula risks giving the patent holder a stranglehold on every industry: Google could demand royalties from eHarmony, or IBM could try to obtain a cease and desist order against the NSA. We'll close with some thoughts on how to improve the patent system's approach to mathematical inventions.
Jeff Suzuki is an Associate Professor at Brooklyn College. In addition to teaching mathematics courses at the graduate and undergraduate level, he is the author of several books, including Patently Mathematical: Picking Partners, Passwords, and Careers by the Numbers (2019), Constitutional Calculus (2015), Mathematics in a Historical Context (2009), and A History of Mathematics (2001). He specializes in the history of mathematics with an emphasis on the period between 1500 and 1800; mathematics education; and the legal, political and constitutional applications of mathematics. He received his PhD in Mathematics from Boston University, and is the recipient of two Carl B. Allendorfer awards from the Mathematical Association of America for expository excellence in Mathematics Magazine.