By Grayson Walloga

 

The recent decision in Thaler v. Vidal held that an artificial intelligence (“AI”) could not obtain a patent for its creations.[1] Thaler’s AI, DABUS, generated patentable inventions without any direct contribution from Thaler himself. He attempted to secure patent protection on his AI’s behalf for two such inventions in 17 jurisdictions all across the world.[2] The United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied these patents and claimed that a machine does not qualify as an inventor.[3] Thaler brought his case to court, but the court ended up siding with the PTO. He appealed his case, but the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.[4]

In its analysis, the court noted the specific language used in both the Patent Act and the Dictionary Act. The Patent Act defines an inventor as “the individual or, if a joint invention, the individuals collectively who invented or discovered the subject matter of the invention.”[5] Since this act failed to provide a definition for “individual,” the court looked to the Dictionary Act, which observed a distinction between individuals and non-human entities such as corporations, associations, and societies.[6] Additionally, the Supreme Court had defined “individual” in prior cases as something that “ordinarily means a human being, a person.”[7]

Thaler attempted several different arguments for why his AI should be allowed to get a patent. He pointed out that DABUS already had a patent in another country.[8] The South African Patent Office granted the AI a patent for its application relating to a “food container based on fractal geometry.” [9] This shocking action by South Africa, however, had little effect in the United States apart from serving as a conversation starter. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit explained that this did nothing for DABUS’s patent application in the United States because “[t]his foreign patent office was not interpreting our Patent Act.”[10] Australia went in a different direction following the South African patent grant.[11] Justice Jonathan Beach of the Federal Court of Australia ruled that AI fell within the scope of “inventor,” but it could not be an applicant or a grantee of a patent.[12]

Thaler tried to convince the skeptical American court that “inventor” should include AI because it would encourage innovation and public disclosure.[13] The court once again dismissed his claim as mere speculation that lacked a basis in any relevant text.[14] Thaler’s contention may be irrelevant in deciding what the Patent Act says, but it remains a good policy question for possible legislative change. The promise of a patent may have little effect on an AI’s motivation to create new things, but the same cannot be said of the person who created that AI.[15] Inventors could create something like DABUS and use it to help them invent new and useful technologies – resulting in more innovation for society.[16] The court did not completely stamp out Thaler’s hope for more innovation. Its decision was only meant to clarify the definition of inventor under the Patent Act. It did not suggest that inventions made by human beings with the assistance of AI are not eligible for patent protection.[17]

But, of course, most people have a fearful outlook towards AI.[18] Many believe that AI could replace them in their jobs or that AI will be relied upon too much in the future. The world would hardly have need of a Thomas Edison toiling away in some lab running experiments all day. An AI could handle all the calculations and simulations so long as its creator properly sets the parameters. The main obstacle for the inventor who wants a patent but uses an AI’s assistance would be the standard for obviousness under the Patent Act. Perhaps an AI generates some formula for success after analyzing scores of data. Would that still be considered obvious even though it might be impractical for an expert in that field to do the very same?[19] If more inventors all start using AI, would the obviousness standards be relative to AI or still just to normal human experts? Businesses continue to accelerate their AI adoption plans which indicates that these questions will not go away anytime soon.[20] But those of us who did not miss the point of the Terminator franchise can at least take solace in knowing that the decision in Thaler v. Vidal means AI cannot get patents…yet.

 

 

[1] Thaler v. Vidal, Appeal No. 2021-2347 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 5, 2022).

[2] Utkarsh Patil, India: South Africa Grants A Patent With An Artificial Intelligence (AI) System As The Inventor – World’s First!!, Mondaq (Oct. 19, 2021), https://www.mondaq.com/india/patent/1122790/south-africa-grants-a-patent-with-an-artificial-intelligence-ai-system-as-the-inventor-world.

[3] Thaler v. Vidal.

[4] Id.

[5] 35 U.S.C. § 100(f) (2012).

[6] Thaler v. Vidal.

[7] Mohamad v. Palestinian Auth., 566 U.S. 449, 454 (2012).

[8] Thaler v. Vidal.

[9] Patil supra note 2.

[10] Thaler v. Vidal.

[11] Patil supra note 2.

[12] Id.

[13] Thaler v. Vidal.

[14] Id.

[15] See Ryan Abbott, The Artificial Inventor Project, Wipo Magazine (Dec. 2019), https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2019/06/article_0002.html.

[16] Id.

[17] Thaler v. Vidal.

[18] How Americans think about artificial intelligence, Pew Research Center (Mar. 17, 2022), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/03/17/how-americans-think-about-artificial-intelligence/.

[19] See Derek Lowe, AI, and the Patent System, Science (June 8, 2022), https://www.science.org/content/blog-post/ai-and-patent-system.

[20] Joe McKendrick, AI Adoption Skyrocketed Over the Last 18 Months, Harvard Business Review (Sept. 27, 2021), https://hbr.org/2021/09/ai-adoption-skyrocketed-over-the-last-18-months.

 

 

Image source: https://thenextweb.com/news/why-ai-systems-should-be-recognized-as-inventors

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