I am aware that certain algorithms to generate or read digital file formats can be patented.

Patents on computer file formats

I am attempting to reverse engineer a particular file format that I did not design, and want to make sure the algorithms that generate and read this file format have not been patented.

I have been attempting to do a patent search, and have read that a important start in performing a patent search is identifying the patent classification that the process falls into.

Can someone help me identify what classification a file format generation or decoding algorithm would fall into?

  • What countries are you considering?
    – Eric S
    Commented Dec 27, 2020 at 14:35

2 Answers 2


The classification systems can be confusing. In the U.S., besides the old USPC, we now have the CPC which is based on a more international system. Somewhat analogous to imperial units vs metric. The CPc is a result of work between the EPO and the USPTO that starts with the ECLA and adds many sub-classifications to be as fine grained as the U.S. system. The only other major system for utility patents is the international IPC which originated the format used by the ECLA and CPC. It is not very fine grained.

. This is a list of the USPC major sections by number. At this level it looks like 707 Data processing: database and file management or data structures might be good. But that is a class. Under it are many many subclasses.

In the CPC system the computer technology hierarchy starts at G06F ELECTRIC DIGITAL DATA PROCESSING One of the classes below it is G06F 16/1794 . . . . {Details of file format conversion} another is G06F 2205/003 . Reformatting, i.e. changing the format of data representation

Specific to encoding I found a page at the CPC that gives an overview of where one might look for various forms or reasons for encoding. Crypto, compression, error correction, etc. under H03M.

The UPC concordance with this is class 341, not one of the 700's.

  • Thanks so much for the response. It seems like using the classification to find the patents that I am looking for (if they even exist) might not be the right path because there are so many subclasses. How else would you go about trying to determine whether a particular company has patents on the file format encoding/decoding? What are your preferred resources for patent searches? Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 12:50
  • If you provide more detail about the encoding (lossy, for audio, video, images, run lenght, able look up, etc.) someone might be able to help with classifications. Searchers use classification as part of a search strategy. Since things can be miss classified is not perfect. If you are assuming one specific company might have a patent you can look in the assignee field. That is also not fully reliable for many reasons. If the file format has a name that can work but the patent that required a license to use GIFs in the past was made before there was such a thing as a GIF.
    – George White
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 20:16
  • For a moment, I was thinking there was a company called “Proff4sinal Searcher”!
    – Eric S
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 21:02
  • One option is to use a professional searcher (I'm not one). It might cost a few hundred dollars. Many of them spend all day at the USPTO public search room using the same tools the examiners use and they often specialize in a technology area. Another, more expensive option is to have an attorney (mot me either) do a "freedom to operate" search. They hire a professional searcher and then provide a professional opinion on the results
    – George White
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 23:31
  • My spelling is horrible but I should at least put on my reading glasses.
    – George White
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 23:32

Wikipedia has an interesting article on software patents. Within that article is a table listing US classification codes to descriptions and number of patents issued. The codes range from 700 to 726. Other countries may have equivalent classification codes. I don't think there is a single code that may be relevant. For instance 710 is "Electrical Computers and Digital Data Processing Systems: Input/Output", but there are several others that might be applicable too depending on the application.

What I would do is to search for relevant patents to your technology and see how they are classified. Use the most common classification codes to search by code to find other relevant patents.

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