Is it possible to patent a programming language?


I am considering inventing a new specialized programming language, which should increase the human/computer communication speed considerably. I, therefore, have two questions:

  1. Is it possible to get a patent on a programming language in any of the large economies of the world?
  2. Would it be possible to write such a patent in a way that really protected the invention so that someone could not come later and just rename all the keywords to avoid the patent ("GOTO" could become "JUMPTO" etc.)

Edit: An example, which is conceptually similar to my invention is the invention of a programming language, which made it much faster to draw 3D-drawings on a computer (CAD) by typing codes, compared to utilizing the mouse as is the case today.

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asked Jan 12 '11 at 20:39
1,567 points

1 Answer


You're probably best advised to get legal advice from an intellectual property rights specialist, but it is important to understand what patents protect you from, and how this works alongside other intellectual property rights law (copyright, licensing, etc.)

Patents are more about protecting the method, rather than the specific implementation -- to take an engineering example, the manufacture of flat glass by floating on a bath of molten metal is patented (I seem to remember by Pilkington) - that doesn't mean all apparatus for this purpose is made by Pilkington, they could licence the method to someone else. However, if somebody else was to invent a new method, maybe using aerogel conveyors or something, they could patent that (assuming no prior art, infringements on other patents, etc.)

There are plenty of cases where concepts within other languages have been patented (for example, Compound OLAP ), and famously how various compression algorithms have previously been patented (such as that used in GIF images)

Given you need a method to patent, you'd probably want to patent your new compiler, rather than the language it uses (after all, your unique syntax will need unique methods for compilation, right? -- also if you can develop a more efficient way of building a compiler, there is the possibility of licensing the patent for use compiling other languages)

Don't forget there are other ways to protect your new language, mostly tied up as licensing terms -- Sun successfully used against Microsoft a few years back, leading to the destruction of the J++ product.

answered Jan 13 '11 at 00:43
Rowland Shaw
226 points
  • Note that in Europe software patents are explicitly forbidden. You simply cannot patent software in Europe. This is also true in some other jurisdictions, but not the US. – Cameron Skinner 13 years ago
  • @cameron do you know how long this has been the case? I know that was awarded a European Patent relating to dynamically overlaying points of interest in a client server environment (or words to that affect) – Rowland Shaw 13 years ago
  • @Rowland: According to my IP lawyer friend it has been since at least 2000. The European Patent Convention is the one to look up. Despite what I said earlier, it's not actually that simple. If you have a "special technical effect" then you *might* be able to get a patent, but it's tricky. If you say "here's some software, can I have a patent" the EPO will say no. If you say "here's a device that happens to use some software and solves this technical problem" then the EPO will think about it. You need to talk to a real IP lawyer, but be aware that pure software patents are generally refused. – Cameron Skinner 13 years ago
  • @Cameron that makes sense -- Multimap's was 1996, IIRC. Personally, I'm not a fan of patents within software, and quite like the EU stance on this – Rowland Shaw 13 years ago
  • You have an interesting approach in patenting the compiler instead of the language. I will modify my question to include an example to make my invention clearer. – David 13 years ago
  • But patentint a compiler is nearly impossible - unless you come up with a new TECHNOLOGICAL INVENTION within the compiler (not of the language). Given how many compilers are around etc., I seriously doubt that it is feasible to score a patent there. And even IF... this would not patent the langauge, only the technology taken in the compiler. Much as - in the example - the idea of "flat glass" is not protected by a patent to make it by pouring glass on smoething hot and flexible. – Net Tecture 13 years ago
  • @Cameron, Rowland: It is not the case that software patents are prohibited in Europe. They are certainly allowed, provided that your software introduces a _"clear and tangible improvement of the current state of the art"_). Otherwise you will be able to only get a copyright. Example: if you invent a new algorithm which runs orders of magnitude faster than other algorithms that solve the same problem, you'll certainly be able to patent it; otherwise if you create a social network website (based on already existing ideas and formats), you'll never get a patent. – Giorgio Camerani 13 years ago

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