No artificial inventors in UK, again

On 21 September 2020 (full text, here), the England and Wales High Court (Patents Court – Judge Marcus Smith) dismissed the appeal brought by Dr. Thaler against the IPO decision of 4 December 2019 rejecting two patent applications indicating as inventor an AI system, a creativity machine called “Dabus”. 

Can an AI be an inventor? Not yet. | MIT Technology Review
AI inventor MS TECH / GETTY, PIXABAY

We reported that both the USPTO and the EPO rejected the corresponding US and EU applications filed by Dr. Thaler, with Dabus named as the inventor (here). Similarly, in its previous decision the IPO held that Dabus fails to meet the requirements of the Patents Act 1977 and that the “inventor” must be a person – meaning a natural person and not merely a legal person. Secondly, there could be no transfer of patent right to Dr. Thaler. Dabus cannot “own” anything capable of being transferred and had no power to assign any rights it might have.

The High Court substantially confirmed the IPO decision and dismissed the various grounds of appeal advanced by Dr. Thaler:

  • Inventor must be a person. Dr. Thaler did not contend that Dabus was a natural or legal person, and focussed instead on the contention that the “inventor” of statute is a legal construct detached from the question of personality. Inventorship should not be a substantial condition of the grant of patent.  On the contrary, the Court held that under the Patents Act 1977 the applicant for a patent must be a “person” and a patent can only be granted to a “person” – whatever the meaning of the term “inventor”. This means that there is a correlation between the inventor and the first “owner” of the invention. Also, the inventor is defined by the Patents Act 1977 as the “actual deviser” of the invention. Although there is no express statement that an inventor must be a person, the term “deviser” at least implies “someone” devising “something”. The natural reading is thus that the inventor is a person and the invention a thing.
  • AI as “inventor” is incapable of conveying any property on the invention to its owner. The law differentiates between the first creation of rights in property and their subsequent transfer. Even if Dabus was capable of being an “inventor”, Dabus would by reason of its status as a thing a not a person be incapable of “own” any initial right and of conveying any property to Dr. Thaler. In sum, AI lacks any ability to “own” and “transfer”.
  • No analogy with computer-generated works. Any analogy with computer-generated works provisions under UK copyright law is to be rejected. The Court emphasized the formal role of patent applications: merely inventing something does not result in a patent being granted to the inventor. A patent must be applied for and that must be done by a person. There must either be an application by the inventor (not Dabus as it is not an inventor nor a person) or the inventor must have transferred the right to apply enabling Dr. Thaler to apply (which again cannot be the case).
Astrological and mystic robot USD 99231 (1936) by J.P. Wilson (as noticed here)

This decision comes as no surprise and furhter confirms the same position taken by the USPTO and the EPO. According to the Court, despite the absent definition of “inventor”, the law is clear (and so the concept of “inventor” as “person”). And the emerging role of AI as inventor is mostly a policy problem that lawmakers (not Courts) have to cope with.

The question is however still debated. On 7 September 2020, the UK government published a call for views on the future relationship between AI and IP (here). And WIPO conversation in July 2020 (here) showed different approaches to the inventorship issue. See for example a Chinese view from HE Juan (Senior Judge of the Intellectual Property Court of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China): “for AI- generated-inventions, as long as they meet the legal requirements, they are not excluded from patent protection […] There are no obstacles to recognizing AI as an inventor at the legal and practical levels. Even if the inventor is credited to be only a natural person, there is the possibility of creating a legal subject status for AI” (here). Yet, most western scholars firmly see AI as a mere tool.

In any case, Dr. Thaler is not desisting. He filed appeals in the EPO in March 2020 (here). More updates soon…

Francesco Banterle

England and Wales High Court (Patents Court), Judge Marcus Smith, decision of 21 September 2020, Stephen L Thaler v. the Comptroller-general of Patents, Designs and Trade Mark

USPTO: no room for artificial inventors

Not surprisingly, also the USPTO came to that conclusion: inventorship is limited to natural persons. Thus, this is in line with the EPO‘s and the UKIPO‘s recent decisions.

Similarly to the European cases, the decision issued on 22 April 2020 (here) came in response to two patent applications on inventions created by an AI system called “Dabus”, in the context of the Artificial Inventor Project. Dabus is also known as the Creativity machine, which was developed by Dr. Stephen Thaler, who is named as the applicant and assignee in the patent applications. The Artificial Inventor Project has filed patent applications via the Patent Cooperation Treaty in various countries including the US, UK, Germany, and China.

The applicant (Dr. Thaler) referred that the Creativity machine is programmed as a series of neural networks trained with general information to independently create. It was the machine, not a person, who recognized the novelty and salience of the inventions at stake.

The application was listing a single inventor (Dabus) and the family name “invention generated by artificial intelligence”.

The main argument of the USPTO is similar to that of the EPO:  US patent law refers to inventors as humans, individuals, or persons. The term “inventor” therefore means the individual who invented the subject matter of the invention. The patent statues preclude a broad interpretation where “inventor” could be construed to cover machines. This view was confirmed by the Federal Circuit that (albeit referring to inventorship in the context of corporations) explained that patent laws require the inventor to be a natural person (see University of Utah v. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Forderung der Wiessenschaften e.V., 734 F.3d 1315 (Fed. Cir. 2013), here: “[t]o perform this mental act, inventors must be natural persons“).

Also, the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure explains that inventorship requires “conception”. And “conception” is defined as a mental act, that is the formation in the mind of the inventor of the idea of the invention. Reference to “mental” and “mind”, again, points to a natural person.

The Office has also explained that inventorship has long been a condition for patentability, as naming an incorrect inventor is a grounds for rejection.

Last, the Office has refused to enter into any policy considerations on the advantages of supporting allowing AI as inventor, as in any case “they do not overcome the plain language of the patent laws”.

Is the end of the story? As the UKIPO said, further debate is needed. It will be interesting to see what local patent offices in other countries will say, especially after a Chinese court held AI-written articles protected by copyright – see here – although a human element still appears necessary.

Francesco Banterle