I am a sophomore student building some software with friends that are heavily based on various articles about distributed hash tables, networking, and various topological mathematical concepts. Since we do plan to sell it after completion, we are worried about potential legal obligations of citing our sources (from different scientific journals)

If we cite some professor, will they be entitled to all our work, perhaps even lay claim to profits and or have the right to sue for copyright infringement? Obviously, I am not asking for the nitty gritty details, but a general rule of thumb.

Is copying theories from scientific journals a big bad idea. Or is it "public knowledge" kind of and I have nothing to fear.


Does citing scientific sources for your program entitle the researchers to some intellectual property? Am I legally bound to them as if I were to a Lady Gaga if I used one of her songs in my videos?

  • Citing an article is like using the English phrase "Born This Way". Quoting from an article is like sampling Lady Gaga's song.
    – JeffE
    Mar 18 '16 at 2:08

The knowledge in the articles is for all to use, what you can't do is to copy text. There is a fine line if the article contains e.g. code listings and you use a fragment, or if you take pseudocode and rewrite it in your favorite programming language, that might be a copyright violation. I very much doubt they'd go after you, in any case.

I'd say that citing the articles is very good practice, somebody (even yourself in a year or so!) trying to understand the code later will thank you.


In Europe, theoretical ideas, algorithms or mathematical theories cannot be patented, only "engineered methods" (whatever that means - note MP3 was patented, but common sense indicate that this was, despite being an algorithm, a heavy engineering effort rather than a mathematical insight). So, in Europe, you can, in principle, use ideas from papers in Europe and develop your software based on that. I am not a lawyer, though, so in any case of doubt, details should be checked by a professional.

In the US, it's more difficult. Software can be patented, and possibly some theoretical concepts, too (not in principle, but in practice it happens). The patents then may be tested in court.

If there is no patent of that kind, you should be able to use it without repercussion and citing is very highly regarded in this case (after all, others might consider use of the idea without revealing it, namely treating it as a trade secret). However, you could use your decision to be open about the method to your advantage by making your high ethical standard define your brand.

  • There is no real difference between an "engineered method" and an algorithm. If the patent was written by a good lawyer, you can still be sued for patent violation if you write code based on a patented algorithm = "engineered method". LZW, which is an algorithm if I've ever seen one, was covered by European patents. Mar 18 '16 at 2:24
  • @PeterShor Interesting, I didn't know LZW was covered by European patents, I thought it was US only. That makes the distinction even weirder. The distinction between discovering a law and making a device out of it is clearer in hardware; but in software it is very soft. (FWIW, I am a strong opponent of software patents exactly for that reason and am surprised to see one more major instance of that in Europe). Mar 18 '16 at 2:30

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