Thing 000490 (machine process)

In 1963 engineers Gary Benson and Arthur Tabbot filed in the Patent Office an application for an invention which was described as being related “to the processing of data by program and more particularly to the programmed conversion of numerical information” in general-purpose digital computers. Gary Benson and Arthur Tabbot claimed a method for converting binary-coded decimal numerals into pure binary numerals, which they had used in their PBX telephone system. The claims were not limited to any particular art or technology, to any particular apparatus or machinery, or to any particular end use. They purported to cover any use of the claimed method in a general-purpose digital computer of any type. A digital computer, as distinguished from an analog computer, operates on data expressed in digits, solving a problem by doing arithmetic. Some of the digits are stored as components of the computer. Others are introduced into the computer in a form which it is designed to recognize. The computer operates then upon both new and previously stored data. The general-purpose computer is designed to perform operations under many different programs.

In 1968, this patent application was rejected by Robert Gottschalk, commissioner of patents at the U.S. Patent Office. Gottschalk considered the algorithm a mathematical theorem.

Gary Benson and Arthur Tabbot appealed this decision and the Board of Appeals of the United States Patent Office, affirmed the rejection by Robert Gottschalk. Following, Gary Benson and Arthur Tabbot appealed again and the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, reversed and Robert Gottschalk obtained certiorari. On November 20, 1972, the court case Benson v. Gottschalk took place at the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge Douglas held that:

Here the process claim is so abstract and sweeping as to cover both known and unknown uses of the BCD to pure binary conversion. The end use may (1) vary from the operation of a train to verification of drivers’ licenses to researching the law books for precedents and (2) be performed through any existing machinery or future-devised machinery or without any apparatus. [...] It is said that the decision precludes a patent for any program servicing a computer. [...] A procedure for solving a given type of mathematical problem is known as an “algorithm”. The procedures set forth in the present claims are of that kind; that is to say, they are a generalized formulation for programs to solve mathematical problems of converting one form of numerical representation to another. [...] The mathematical formula involved here has no substantial practical application except in connection with a digital computer, which means that if the judgment below is affirmed, the patent would wholly pre-empt the mathematical formula and in practical effect would be a patent on the algorithm itself. [...] It is noted that the creation of programs has undergone substantial and satisfactory growth in the absence of patent protection and that copyright protection for programs is presently available.

The court held that computer program was not patentable but copyrightable. Computer programs are considered by the court as literary works protected by copyright.