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.
If nothing else, Facebook’s recent announcement that it plans to change its name to “Meta” is a sign that the metaverse is coming and that our legal system must be prepared for it. As the metaverse, the concept of a virtual version of the physical world, gains increased popularity, individuals will engage in more transactions involving non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, to purchase the virtual items that will inhabit metaverse worlds. Accordingly, the United States will need more robust regulatory frameworks to deal with NFT transactions, especially in the gaming industry, where NFT use will likely rise significantly.
In most other areas of digital media and entertainment, NFTs are often associated with niche items, such as high-priced autographs and limited-edition collectibles. However, in the video gaming sector, existing consumer spending habits on rewards such as loot boxes, cosmetic items, and gameplay advantages provide fertile ground for explosive growth in NFT use. This article will explore the outlook for NFTs in gaming, why gaming NFT creators should consider the potential impact of financial regulations on their tokens, and how current U.S. financial regulations could apply to this ownership model.
A. Current State of Virtual Currencies and Items in Gaming
Gaming has long been the gateway for consumers to explore immersive digital experiences, thus explaining why virtual currencies and collectible items have such strong roots in this sector. Further, given the popularity of virtual currencies and collectibles in gaming, it is no surprise that cryptocurrencies and NFTs have similarly experienced success in this space.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are unique digital assets that consumers may purchase with fiat currency or cryptocurrency. NFTs can be “minted” for and linked to almost any digital asset (e.g., video game items, music, social media posts), and even many physical assets. While NFTs are blockchain-based just like cryptocurrencies, the key difference between the two is that a NFT is not mutually interchangeable with any other NFT (i.e. they are non-fungible). So why are they so special? As digital experiences continue to move to the metaverse, NFTs will serve as a primary means for consumers to connect with companies, celebrities, and, eventually, each other.
In the simplest explanation, metaverse is the concept of a digital twin of the physical world, featuring fully interconnected spaces, digital ownership, virtual possessions, and extensive virtual economies. Mainstream media has already given significant coverage to metaverse activities that have appeared in popular games, such as concerts in Fortnite and weddings in Animal Crossing. However, more futuristic examples of how NFTs and metaverse could transform our daily lives exist in the Philippines with Axie Infinity and Decentraland, a blockchain-based virtual world.
In Axie Infinity, players breed, raise, battle, and trade digital animals called Axies. The game was launched in 2018, but it took off in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as many families used it to supplement their income or make several times their usual salary. To date, the game has generated $2.05 billion in sales. Meanwhile, plots of virtual land in Decentraland, a 3D virtual world where consumers may use the Etheruem blockchain to purchase virtual plots of lands as NFTs, are already selling for prices similar to those offered in the physical world. For example, in June 2021, a plot of land in the blockchain-based virtual world sold for $900,000.
The growth in popularity of Axie Infinity has already caught the eye of the Philippine Bureau of Internal Revenue, which has announced that Axie Infinity players must register to pay taxes. As financial regulation of NFTs looms, it will be imperative for U.S. gaming companies to consider how federal courts and the government will recognize the status of NFTs.
B. Financial Regulation and NFTs
As NFT transaction volume grows, there will undoubtedly be greater scrutiny over these transactions by financial regulators. While the current legal and regulatory environment does not easily accommodate virtual assets, there are a two primary ways NFTs may be regulated.
1. Securities Regulation
One of the most hotly discussed legal issues concerning NFTs involves whether these tokens should be recognized as securities. Under SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., a transaction is deemed an investment contract under the Securities Act where all of the following four factors are satisfied: (1) an investment of money; (2) in a common enterprise; (3) with a reasonable expectation of profits; (4) to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.
Intuitively, NFTs, in the form of virtual collectible items, don’t seem like traditional tradable securities as they are unique, non-fungible items. Indeed, they do not appear to demonstrate the type of “horizontal commonality” that federal courts have held to be necessary to satisfy the “common enterprise” aspect of the Howey test. “Horizontal commonality” is generally understood to involve the pooling of money or assets from multiple investors where the investors share in the profits and risk.
However, the Securities Exchange Commission has stated that it “does not require vertical or horizontal commonality per se, nor does it view a ‘common enterprise’ as a distinct element of the term ‘investment contract.’” Therefore, the fungibility aspect of the token alone may not preclude it from inclusion under securities regulation.
A more interesting inquiry might involve assessing whether the reasonable expectation of profits associated with an NFT is based on the “efforts of [others],” as outlined in Howey. In evaluating this element of the Howey test, the SEC considers whether a purchaser reasonably expects to rely on the efforts of active participants and whether those efforts are “undeniably significant” and “affect the failure or success of the enterprise.” Under this lens, how an NFT is offered and sold is critical to consider.
For example, if one mints (i.e., creates a NFT for) a piece of graphic art that sits and passively accumulates value, the failure or success of purchasing such a NFT would likely not be highly reliant on the activities of others. As the SEC has noted, price appreciation resulting solely from external market forces (such as general inflationary trends or the economy) impacting the supply and demand for an underlying asset generally is not considered ‘profit’ under the Howey test. Similarly, if a consumer purchases a digital pet, like those in Axie Infinity, that actively accumulates value through winning a series of battles, the success or failure of this digital pet would also not be highly reliant on the activities of others. However, this analysis becomes more complex when considering the recent increased interest in “fractional NFTs,” or “f-NFTs”, where an investor shares a partial interest in an NFT with others. Since these fractional interests are more accessible to a larger number of smaller investors, they may be more likely to drive market trading and, as such, be recognized as securities.
2. Federal Anti-Money Laundering Statutes
Under the Bank Secrecy Act, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or “FinCEN,” is the U.S. Department of Treasury bureau that has the authority to regulate financial systems to fight money laundering. Although it has yet to comment directly on NFTs, FinCEN has released guidance suggesting that the movement of monetary value through virtual currencies could trigger money transmission regulations.
A critical factor determining whether the transfer of an NFT is a money transmission service will be whether FinCEN recognizes the NFT as “value that substitutes for currency.” If the NFT’s value may be substituted for currency then the transfer of such a NFT would likely trigger money transmission regulations. If players can purchase NFTs using a virtual currency that can cash out for fiat currency, then this transfer may be subject to FinCEN regulation. Alternatively, based on FinCEN’s recent guidance, even if NFTs are purchased with virtual currency that users cannot cash out for fiat currency, money transmission regulation may be triggered. Indeed, depending on how the gaming platform facilitates the transfer of in-game currency, regulatory risks may exist when users purchase third-party goods or make virtual marketplace transactions.
Earlier this year, Congress took a significant step towards making money transmission regulations more inclusive of NFT use cases when it passed the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020. Under the Act, art and antiquities dealers are now subject to the same anti-money laundering regulations that previously applied to financial institutions under the Bank Secrecy Act. This development will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the potential liability that gaming platforms can face as “dealers” of NFTs.
The United States is still a long way away from having laws that adequately regulate the creation, selling, and purchase of NFTs. However, NFT usage continues to increase rapidly. Nearly half of all U.S. adults are interested in participating in the NFT market, and gamers are 2.6x more likely to participate in the NFT market. As regulators move quickly to keep up with the pace of this market, firms will need to stay alert to ensure that they maintain regulatory compliance.
Rohun Reddy is a third-year JD-MBA student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Kellogg School of Management.