Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm curious about the rights of ownership regarding problems presented in math textbooks. Can a math problem in general be considered intellectual property of its "inventor"? I'm assuming textual word problems can be "owned" in the same way other literature is by publishers/authors but it becomes more gray with purely numerical expressions. Is it merely a contextual ownership, for example, say no other math author can include such a problem in another textbook or is it more inclusive regarding other mediums like software or blogs etc where money is being made? An "elucidation" here would be much appreciated, thanks.

share|cite|improve this question
You can include other people's problems and ideas in your own work, but you're expected to be polite and cite their authors. – Weltschmerz Oct 16 '10 at 0:09
This is not However, look up "fair use". – Nate Eldredge Oct 16 '10 at 2:58
hmm, this is an interesting question! :) – jericson Oct 16 '10 at 3:41
@Nate: "fair use" does not answer the question. I asked lawyers about this over the years and never got a conclusive answer. If this is not a place to discuss the question, I don't know a better one. Mathematical problems are not necessarily the same as generic "text" for purposes of copyright and it is also unclear if there are any direct legal precedents involving mathematics books, papers or problems. – T.. Oct 16 '10 at 16:22
Wolfram blocked Cook from publishing his work for a bit, so at least in some cases reproduction may be illegal. – Xodarap Jun 7 '11 at 0:48

I asked this very question to a copywriter some years ago and he said that you can not copyright protect a formula but he also said that there are copyright protected algorithms.

So, where is the borderline? I do not know, but I guess this has to be tested in each case. Here is a discussion on the question, and here is a link to RSA.

Also, here is a link about plagiarism in science.

share|cite|improve this answer
Thank you for the answer and help. – user2054 Oct 16 '10 at 12:13
@user2054: this is a good but very partial answer, and I think the question should be kept in the "unanswered" state for at least a few days, so as to attract more replies. e.g., many people will catch up on reading math.SE over the weekend. It would be especially useful to hear from lawyers, if any are reading this. – T.. Oct 16 '10 at 16:26
@user2054: No problem, but I actually agree with T.. it would be interesting to see other comments too. – AD. Oct 16 '10 at 18:35
I've unchecked it. Forgot this is still beta pace. – user2054 Oct 17 '10 at 8:36
I don't know about copyrighting mathematics, but Bracewell once patented his modification of FFT, the "fast Hartley transform"; though the algorithm is thankfully out of patent now, I imagine there was at least some grumbling about this. – J. M. Oct 17 '10 at 16:11

Well, I'm not so sure that this question is a math question, per-se, but it as in interesting question about mathematics nonetheless. As a matter however of full disclosure, I am not an IP expert and am really not qualified to answer this question, but will give it a go anyway.

There is no doubt that algorithms themselves can be patented. Just ask all of the software companies in the 90's that either abandoned the GIF format or started paying royalties to the LZW compression patent holder. Fractal image compression is another well-known algorithm that was patented and, most likely because of this, never really enjoyed widespread adoption.

Now, addressing the specific question, suppose that someone noted that Hatcher's Algeraic Topology text had no solutions to the exercises and decided to remedy that by working out all of the problems in the text and publishing them. Is this fair use? An argument could probably be made either way. The solution publisher could argue that only a small portion of the text was actually "copied", namely the statements of the problems, and that full attribution was given and therefore fair use of the material was made. The publisher of the text could counter, however, that wholesale reproduction of all problems goes beyond the fair use doctrine and constitutes, instead, a derivative work.

Ultimately, both sides have legitimate arguments and, if no compromise could be reached, the only way that it would really be settled is through the courts. So, I think the best answer to this question, much as someone intimated in another answer, is that the answer is currently indeterminate. I'm not aware of any cases where the specific question regarding ownership of a collection of math problems has been tested.

share|cite|improve this answer
You could always publish answers without restating the questions. Just using page and question numbers for reference should not be a problem – Henry Jul 7 '12 at 14:44
Software patents are not recognised in civilised countries. – kinokijuf Nov 14 '13 at 7:52

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.