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Do not worry - many things are patented these days, and some are image processing tasks - examples include the feature detectors, where patents grow like mushrooms, but the kind guys that invented Haar - Viola and Jones - had a heart for the free development. Anyone is free to re-implement and use their algorithm.

By the way, it is good to know that almost everyone in the computer science/research community allows students/fellow researchers/hobbyists to use their patented code without trouble. Only when you make money out of it they will become interested.

And you should know that there is a legal provision in their licences that allows you to use patented code for non-commercial applications. So, go for it, learn image processing, and worry less about attorneys and lawyers