Thaler (DABUS) is donged Down Under

Last Friday, the clock finally ran out on Dr Thaler’s attempt to register a patent in Australia on the basis that the artificial intelligence, DABUS, was the inventor: the High Court refused special leave to appeal from the Full Federal Court’s ruling that an inventor must be a human being.

Perhaps surprisingly, the High Court did not reject the application for special leave on the grounds that an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act must be a human being. Rather, it dismissed the application on the grounds that it is not an appropriate vehicle for the determination of the issue.

You will recall that s 15(1) of the Patents Act 1990 defines who is entitled to be granted a patent:

Subject to this Act, a patent for an invention may only be granted to a person who:

(a) is the inventor; or

(b) would, on the grant of a patent for the invention, be entitled to have the patent assigned to the person; or

(c) derives title to the invention from the inventor or a person mentioned in paragraph (b); or

(d) is the legal representative of a deceased person mentioned in paragraph (a), (b) or (c).

The Commissioner had rejected Dr Thaler’s application at the formalities stage on the basis that an inventor must be a human being. Therefore, Dr Thaler’s application failed at the formalities stage under reg. 3.2C(2)(ii) because the application identified DABUS as the inventor and DABUS was an artificial intelligence only.

It was an agreed fact before the Courts that DABUS was the “inventor”:

MR SHAVIN: …. [Dr Thaler] programmed the computer but he said that the way in which the computer was programmed is it acted independently in its selection of subject matter and in its generation of the invention. So, he says that he truly was not the inventor, but DABUS, the artificial intelligence, he says was the proper inventor.

Two or perhaps three matters seemed to be exercising the panel determining the special leave application.

First, there were questions directed to whether or not the case was simply one of either DABUS qualified as an inventor or there was no inventor at all for the purposes of the Act. One problem with that was that, as it was an agreed fact between the Commissioner and Dr Thaler there was no contradictor to the proposition. Notwithstanding the agreement between the parties, the panel appeared to consider that Dr Thaler himself might have been the inventor:

EDELMAN J: Mr Shavin, your submission would have a great deal of force if it were possible to exclude, immediately, without any possibility of argument, the possibility that the applicant was not the inventor, because then, once that possibility is excluded, one is left with either a presumption of the section that every invention must have an inventor – on your submission – that is wrong. Or, alternatively, an approach an inventor does not need to be a natural person, which meets some of the difficulties that the Full Court has identified. But the difficulty for this Court is that without having any submissions about the starting point, which is whether a natural person here could be the inventor, we are groping in the dark.

The idea being suggested here appears to be similar to questions of authorship in copyright law where there may be questions of degree such that the computer program is merely a tool like, say, Microsoft Word which an author uses to record his or her words compared to the computerised system used to generate telephone directories in the Phone Directories case where, the system having been designed and implemented, the Court found there was no human intervention.[1]

Secondly, if the Act did set up the dichotomy and an inventor had to be a human being, concerns were expressed that would mean there was a “gap” in the legislation – there could be “inventions” that could not be protected because there was no inventor. Thus:

EDELMAN J: If that factual and legal position is correct, and Dr Thaler is not the inventor, then there is a significant hole in the operation of section 15 because it means that you can have an invention but no inventor.

Thirdly, the panel was plainly aware that the status of DABUS as an inventor was an issue being litigated around the world and, in particular, the UK Supreme Court has listed for hearing on 27 February 2023 the legality of the procedural approach taken to reject Dr Thaler’s application.

Where does that leave matters?

Plainly, some sort of question mark hangs over the Full Federal Court’s approach.

So far, the Commissioner has not announced any change to practice about disallowing applications which identify an artificial intelligence as an inventor.

There may be a question whether someone who does not have Dr Thaler’s agenda will nominate an artificial intelligence as an inventor. The panel refusing the special leave application appeared to envisage that the person who owned, or controlled or programmed the computer might legally be able to claim inventorship. For example:

EDELMAN J: There is an easy way the question could have been raised, which could have been if the applicant had listed himself as the inventor and the Commissioner and had rejected that on the basis that he was not the inventor but the artificial intelligence was the inventor, which would then have given rise to the prospect that nobody, for the purposes of section 15, was the inventor.

There are, however, with respect any number of difficulties with this.

For example, as Mr Shavin KC pointed out, that might require the applicant to identify someone as the inventor which the applicant did not believe to be true.

Secondly, with the benefit of the special leave panel’s (non-binding) observations, does one nominate the owner, the controller or the programmer or some combination of all three as the inventor? If one nominated the wrong person, that might provide a ground for revoking any subsequent patent on the grounds of lack of entitlement or more likely fraud, false suggestion or misrepresentation.[2]

Thirdly, how would anyone ever know? In most (if not all) cases, the Commissioner is not going to be in a position to dispute the nomination of a person as an inventor. It might possibly come up in the context of an opposition or infringement / revocation proceedings but that would likely depend on something like the time-honoured tradition of a disgruntled ex-employee blowing the whistle.

If nothing else, if such things are to be protected as patents, it seems what we really need is some form of international agreement one whether they should be patentable and, if so, rules or guidelines for determining who is entitled to be the applicant. There has of course been no rush of international adoption of the extension of copyright to computer generated works. That problem, however, is becoming increasingly important as schoolkids (and millions of others) are happily playing with online AIs to generate their own art works, poems and other materials.

[Thaler v Commissioner of Patents]thaler sla] [2022] HCATrans 199 (11 November 2022)

  1. Telstra Corporation Limited v Phone Directories Company Pty Ltd [2010] FCAFC 149 at e.g. [118] – [120]. The trial judge, whose decision was upheld in that appeal, was also a member of the panel which refused special leave in Thaler.  ?
  2. Patents Act s 138(3)(a) and (e) – although, in the case of entitlement issues s 138(4) and s 22A may very well excuse inadvertent errors.  ?