Suppose I own a copy of a physics book containing original research. Suppose that this book is licensed under a non-free license.

If I use the formulas and concepts explained in that book in my program, am I infringing the book's copyright?

In my opinion the answer is no because I'm copying ideas, not text, and ideas can't be copyrighted. Though, I must say that in order to use the formulas, I'm forced to copy parts of the text, hence the question.

Update: I have no problems crediting the author and citing the book; my aim is to have freedom to choice the license I want for my software, without being limited by the book's license.

  • Does it matter if you're writing a program or publishing another research article? Without a reference this is plagiarism. See what they have to say: plagiarism.org
    – JeffO
    May 29, 2013 at 16:18
  • @JeffO: of course I'm willing to cite the source and credit the author. The problem is: I want my software to be entirely under a free software license. Using copyrighted work might limit my license choices.
    – user16538
    May 29, 2013 at 16:22
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    I don't think you can copyright physic formulas. If it's a useful formula that accurately describes some portion of the physical universe, and someone accuses it of "stealing it", just say you have physicist friends who rediscovered the formula on their own. However, it'd be common courtesy to just cite the text you got the idea from. If they didn't want someone else "using their concepts and formulas", they wouldn't have published the article in the first place.
    – Andres F.
    May 29, 2013 at 16:48
  • Note your code isn't "republishing" the copyrighted book, which would be illegal. You are merely using the book's results in order to model some physics formula in your code. If this weren't possible, you'd have to check every copyrighted book you read and every piece of code you wrote to make sure no ideas from any book ever inspired any code you wrote.
    – Andres F.
    May 29, 2013 at 16:52

2 Answers 2


Mathematical formulas usually are not covered by copyright, since there is a limited number of ways to express them. And unless you're copying mathematica source code, you have to "re-write" the formula anyway.

That said, it's possible that you may be encumbered by a separate license relating to How you acquired the book. I.e., via a specific contract instead of just picking it up at a bookstore.

I do have to wonder what the point of a physics book whose formulas you aren't allowed to use, though.

  • Eventhough research articles are intended to be "used" you should site a reference if you are going to publish it regardless of the form.
    – JeffO
    May 29, 2013 at 16:16
  • Could you please explain the way I acquired the book could be a problem for my program?
    – user16538
    May 29, 2013 at 16:20
  • I do have to wonder what the point of a physics book whose formulas you aren't allowed to use, though. -- I have used the word 'book' actually meaning "any kind of text". It's not rare to find scientific articles that end with "all rights reserved".
    – user16538
    May 29, 2013 at 16:20
  • @user16538: I think it means that you might have to give proper credit to the original researcher who developed the formula that you're using, maybe in a credit page, or a README file or something. I'd be surprised if there were an actual legal requirement to do this, but the researcher might feel it's still nice to be given credit where it's due. May 29, 2013 at 16:25
  • 1
    And, really, "am I allowed to do that" is a legal question. When in doubt, ask a lawyer or ask for permission.
    – DougM
    May 29, 2013 at 19:18

Copyright isn't your only concern. You also need to potentially worry about associated patents. However, most academics publish their work because they want others to use them, and in my experience, most would welcome a practical implementation, especially if that implementation is freely licensed.

My first step would be to contact the author and tell him what you plan to do. Chances are he'll give you express permission. If he doesn't, you'll probably have to ask a lawyer's advice anyway.

  • You can't patent a natural law. Most physics equations are such.
    – user40980
    May 29, 2013 at 20:30
  • Backing my my previous comment, "courts have consistently held that one cannot get a patent on laws of nature or natural phenomena" and "Laws of nature, natural phenomena, and naturally-occurring products are not patentable" (from digital-law-online.info/lpdi1.0/treatise54.html ); and actual case "he Court referenced the groundbreaking discoveries by Einstein and Newton and noted that neither “E=mc²” nor the “law of gravity” would have been subject matter eligible" (from patentlyo.com/patent/2012/03/… )
    – user40980
    May 30, 2013 at 0:49
  • @MichaelT - Ask Monsanto about laws of nature not being patentable...
    – mouviciel
    May 30, 2013 at 7:35
  • @mouviciel Genes are not laws of nature, but rather implementations (or so the thinking goes). A physics equation is not patentable - a particular device that makes use of it is.
    – user40980
    May 30, 2013 at 12:05

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