Author: Varun Bhatnagar

The development of AI systems has reached a point at which these systems can create and invent new products and processes just as humans can. There are several features of these AI systems that allow them to create and invent. For example, the AI systems imitate intelligent human behavior, as they can perceive data from outside and decide which actions to take to maximize their probability of success in achieving certain goals. The AI systems can also evolve and change based on new data and thus may produce results that the programmers or operators of the systems did not expect in their initial plans. They have created inventions in different industries, including the drug, design, aerospace, and electric engineering industries. NASA’s AI software has designed a new satellite antenna, and Koza’s AI system has designed new circuits. Those inventions would be entitled to patent protection if developed by humans. However, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has refused to assign the patent rights of these inventions to the AI systems.

The USTPO Denies Patent Rights to AI Systems

In a patent application that listed an AI system, DABUS, as the inventor, the USPTO refused to assign the patent right to DABUS and thus denied the patent application. DABUS invented an emergency warning light and a food container. The USPTO based its decision mainly upon a plain reading of the relevant statutes. 35 U.S.C § 115(a) states that “[a]n application for patent that is filed … shall include, or be amended to include, the name of the inventor for any invention claimed in the invention.” 35 U.S.C § 100(a) defines an “inventor” as “the individual, or if a joint invention, the individuals collectively who invented or discovered the subject matter of the invention.” 35 U.S.C § 115 consistently refers to inventors as natural persons, as it uses pronouns specific to natural persons, “himself” and “herself.” 35 U.S.C § 115 further states that the inventor must be a person who can execute an oath or declaration. The USPTO thus refused to extend its interpretation of “inventor” to an AI system, and it has stated that “interpreting ‘inventor’ broadly to encompass machines would contradict the plain reading of the patent statutes that refer to persons and individuals.

The Federal Circuit follows the same approach. In Beech Aircraft Corp. v. EDO Corp., the Federal Circuit held that “only natural persons can be ‘inventors.’” Therefore, in the current U.S. legal system, patent rights cannot be assigned for AI-generated inventions even though such inventions would be entitled to patent protection had they been created by humans.

Decisions regarding the patent protection for AI-generated inventions have spurred some disputes among academics. The creator of DABUS, Stephen Thaler, insisted that the inventions created by DABUS should be entitled to patent protection because DABUS is a system that can devise and develop new ideas, unlike some traditional AI systems that can only follow fixed plans. Stephen Thaler contends that DABUS has not been trained using data that is relevant to the invention it produced. Therefore, he claims, that DABUS independently recognized the novelty and usefulness of its instant inventions, entitling its invention patent protection. Thaler also raises an argument regarding the moral rights of inventions. Although current U.S. patent law may recognize Thaler as the inventor of these inventions, he emphasizes that recognizing him rather than DABUS as the inventor devalues the traditional human inventorship by crediting a human with work that they did not invent.

Some legal academics support the contentions of Stephen Thaler. For example, Professor Ryan Abbott agrees that AI systems should be recognized as inventors and points out that if in the future, using AI becomes the prime method of invention, the whole IP system will lose its effectiveness.

However, there are also objections to Thaler’s contentions. For example, AI policy analyst Hodan Omaar disagrees that AI systems should be granted inventor status because she believes that the patent system is for protecting an inventor’s economic rights, not their moral rights. She points out that the primary goal of patent law is to promote innovations, but Thaler’s proposed changes to patent law do little to do so. She argues that the value of protecting new inventions is for a patent owner rather than an inventor, which means that it makes no difference who creates the value. Thus, she concludes that listing DABUS as inventor makes no difference to the patent system. Omaar further argues that the proposed changes would introduce a legally unpunishable inventor that threatens human inventors, because the government cannot effectively hold AI systems, unlike individuals or corporations, directly accountable if they illegally infringe on the IP rights of others.

Patent Rights to AI Systems in Other Jurisdictions and Insights on U.S. Patent Law

Some foreign jurisdictions take the same stance as the United States. The UK Court of Appeal recently refused to grant patent protection to the inventions generated by DABUS because the Court held that patent law in the UK requires an inventor to be a natural person.

Despite failing to in the US and UK, Thaler succeeded in getting patent protections for the inventions created by DABUS in some other jurisdictions that allowed listing DABUS as the inventor. South Africa granted patent protection to a food container invention created by DABUS. This is the first patent for an AI-generated invention that names an AI system as the inventor. The decision may be partially explained by the recent policy landscape of South Africa, as its government wants to solve the country’s socio-economic issues by increasing innovation.

Thaler gained another success in Australia. While the decision in South Africa was made by a patent authority, the decision in Australia is the first decision of this type made by a court. The Commissioner of Patents in Australia rejected the patent application by Thaler, but the Federal Court of Australia then answered the key legal questions in favor of permitting AI inventors. Unlike patent law in the US, the Australian Patents Act does not define the term “inventor.” The Commissioner of Patents contended that the term “inventor” in the Act only refers to a natural person. However, Thaler successfully argued to the Court that the ordinary meaning of “inventor” is not limited to humans. The Court noted that there is no specific aspect of patent law in Australia that does not permit non-human inventors.

Examining the different decisions regarding the patent application of DABUS in different jurisdictions, we can see that the different outcomes may result from different policy landscapes and different patent law provisions in different jurisdictions.

For example, South Africa has a policy landscape where it wants to increase innovation to solve its socio-economic issues, while in the U.S., the government may not have the same policy goals related to patent law. Australia’s patent law does not limit an “inventor” to mean a natural person, while U.S. patent law specifically defines the word “inventor” to exclude non-human inventors in this definition. Thus, it is reasonable for U.S. patent law not to grant patent rights to AI-systems for AI-generated inventions, unless the legislature takes actions to broaden the definition of “inventor” to include non-human inventors.

The primary goal of the U.S. patent law is to promote innovation. If those who want to persuade the U.S. legislature to amend the current patent law to allow non-human inventors cannot demonstrate that such a change is in line with that primary goal, then it is unlikely that the legislature would support such a change. Whether granting patents to AI systems and allowing those systems to be inventors can promote innovation is likely to be an ongoing debate among academics.

Jason Chen is a third-year law student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.