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Reference The post that started it all

In order to clear up the original question I asked in a provocative manner, I have posed this question.

If you learn an algorithm from an open source project, is it OK to use that algorithm in a separate closed sourced project? And if not, does that imply that you cannot use that knowledge ever again? If you can use it, what circumstance could that be?

Just to clarify, I am not trying to evade a licence, otherwise I would not have asked the question in the first place.

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You shouldn't post a question explicitly for debate. That's a sure way to fasttrack it to closure. If you want a debate, go to a forum, otherwise, you may want to rephrase. –  Greg Jackson Jun 27 '11 at 22:36
    
Most algorithms are not patented. If you can find the body of algorithm on Wikipedia, then chances are good that it is not proprietary (check the corresponding article though). The patent could also expire, such as was the case with JPEG. Once you find the algorithm on Wikipedia or in other academic publication, you can usually use it. Just put some effort into writing your own code. –  Job Jun 27 '11 at 22:38
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While I did use the word debate, I do believe there is an answer to this question. I believe the debate would be formed by different answers and therefore this question is valid. –  Chris Barry Jun 28 '11 at 0:22
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3 Answers

IANAL. If this is of great concern to you, seek the advice of your attorney.

If you learn an algorithm from an open source project, is it OK to use that algorithm in a separate closed sourced project?

Yes. An algorithm is not eligible for Copyright, so there is no Copyright issue. It is merely a sequence of steps; a recipe for arriving at a conclusion from a given starting point. Copyrights cover expressions of ideas. An algorithm is neither an idea nor an expression of one; it is merely a sequence of steps to perform some kind of work and produce some kind of result; it's a recipe or a guide.

For software to be eligible for Copyright, it must be the application of algorithms in a larger work. Your particular use of an algorithm is eligible for Copyright protection, but the algorithm itself cannot be. (You can substitute "interface" for "algorithm" and the statement holds true, at least in the US.)

The patent issue is irrelevant to the question as posed.

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+1 for "Seek the advice of your attorney." –  John R. Strohm Oct 3 '11 at 13:04
    
+1 For algorithms not being patentable. –  Andres F. Jul 26 '13 at 20:53
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@Andres Algorithms are patentable, but not copyrightable! Like the answer says. Patent issue is irrelevant to the question, if we assume the open source project isn't violating any patents. If it is, then you can't use it as open source, nor can you re-implement it. –  MarkJ Jul 27 '13 at 7:51
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@MarkJ True, I meant to write "copyrightable". Not sure why I wrote "patentable", since I know the difference. My bad :P –  Andres F. Jul 27 '13 at 19:25
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As stated, Design Algorithms can be patented.

However, It's worth noting that design patents can only be filled for up to one year after the design/idea is first thought up or published. If the process has been out for a couple years (and no-one has patented it) then it cannot be patented now.

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true unless a provisional patent was filed. I am not a lawyer, but as far as I understand those can be filed and refiled indefinitely and it's impossible to know if one has been filed because their contents aren't made public. –  Ami Jun 28 '11 at 1:04
    
@Ami, a Provisional Patent only lasts one year. To my knowledge you cannot re-file them (though it might depend on the type of thing being patented. A Provisional Patent only "saves your spot" in the patent line while you get a real patent filed. –  Xeoncross Jun 28 '11 at 16:49
    
see: wipo.int/treaties/en/ip/paris/trtdocs_wo020.html#P83_6610 article 4.C (4) –  Ami Jun 28 '11 at 17:03
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Under US law at least, algorithms cannot be copyrighted. The only thing you have to worry about is patents and that has to actually be pursued by the author--unlike copyright that applies as soon as the matter has been published in other words.

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