August 2023

Copyright and another AI

Judge Howell in the District Court for the District of Columbia (USA) has rejected Dr Thaler’s attempt to register copyright in “A Recent Entrance to Paradise”.

Dr Thaler – well-known for his attempt to obtain patent protection for some kind of “fractal” bottle “invented” by DABUS – attempted to register[1] a copyright in the United States for “A Recent Entrance to Paradise”:

In his application to the Register of Copyrights, Dr Thaler stated the work had been “autonomously created by a computer algorithm running on a machine” – an AI which Dr Thaler named “Creativity Machine” – and nominated himself as the owner of the copyright in the computer-generated work “as a work-for-hire the owner of the Creativity Machine.”

The Register of Copyrights rejected the application on the basis that copyright law requires a human author and the “Creativity Machine” was not human.

Dr Thaler applied for administrative law review. Judge Howell affirmed the Register’s ruling.

Judge Howell followed a number of earlier decisions which required a human author. Her Honour noted (e.g. slip op. 10):

The act of human creation—and how to best encourage human individuals to engage in that creation, and thereby promote science and the useful arts—was thus central to American copyright from its very inception. Non-human actors need no incentivization with the promise of exclusive rights under United States law, and copyright was therefore not designed to reach them.[2](emphasis supplied)

Judge Howell’s ruling, however, is very narrow.

The fact that the case was an administrative law review is significant. As the case was an administrative law review, the only question was whether the Register acted arbitrarily, capriciously or otherwise in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act on the basis of the administrative record before the Register.

On that basis, the case failed.

In the course of the proceeding before Judge Howell, Dr Thaler attempted to introduce new facts (which may seem familiar to those of you following the patent debate). Dr Thaler devoted a “substantial portion” of his submissions to various theories about how ownership of any copyright transferred to him by operation of the “work made for hire” or common law property principles. (Slip op. footnote 1):

[Dr Thaler] elaborates on his development, use, ownership, and prompting of the AI generating software in the so-called “Creativity Machine,” implying a level of human involvement in this case entirely absent in the administrative record. ….

These additional facts were irrelevant on the administrative law review presented (Slip op. 14):

Plaintiff’s effort to update and modify the facts for judicial review on an APA claim is too late. On the record designed by plaintiff from the outset of his application for copyright registration, this case presents only the question of whether a work generated autonomously by a computer system is eligible for copyright. In the absence of any human involvement in the creation of the work, the clear and straightforward answer is the one given by the Register: No.

If Dr Thaler’s submissions about his development, use, ownership and prompting of “Creativity Machine” had been relevant, it might possibly lead to a different conclusion.

As noted above, Judge Howell did opine that non-human actors do not need the incentivization of exclusive rights to generate materials. But Judge Howell also noted that the law had developed to recognise copyright in the “mechanical reproduction” of a scene by a camera because that reproduction resulted from “human involvement in, and ultimate creative control over, the work ….”[3]

Judge Howell noted that a case raising issues such as those Dr Thaler belatedly attempted raise would give rise to complex issues:

Undoubtedly, we are approaching new frontiers in copyright as artists put AI in their toolbox to be used in the generation of new visual and other artistic works. The increased attenuation of human creativity from the actual generation of the final work will prompt challenging questions regarding how much human input is necessary to qualify the user of an AI system as an “author” of a generated work, the scope of the protection obtained over the resultant image, how to assess the originality of AI-generated works where the systems may have been trained on unknown pre-existing works, how copyright might best be used to incentivize creative works involving AI, and more.[4]

All of these considerations seem likely to be relevant under Australian law for the subsistence of copyright in original works.[5]

In her letter rejecting the “Zarya of the Dawn” application, the Register did reject the claim to copyright made on the basis of the sort of facts Dr Thaler wished to raise.

I guess we can expect Dr Thaler to seek to register some new production by the “Creativity Machine” with a more extensive record.

Stephen Thaler v Shira Perlmutter (DCDC 23 Aug 2023 Case 22–1564)


  1. The USA is one of the very few countries which operate a system to register copyright. Even in the USA, registration is not madatory but, in the case of “US Works”, registration is a requirement before an infringement action can be brought in the USA and also to qualify for statutory damages: 17 USC §411 and §412. 17 USC [§101][101] defines “United States work” to mean: (a) a published work that is first published in the United States; first published simultaneously in the United States and another treaty party or parties, whose law grants a term of copyright protection that is the same as or longer than the term provided in the United States; first published simultaneously in the United States and a foreign nation that is not a treaty party; or first published in a foreign nation that is not a treaty party, and all of the authors of the work are nationals, domiciliaries, or habitual residents of, or in the case of an audiovisual work legal entities with headquarters in, the United States; (b) an unpublished work where all the authors of the work are nationals, domiciliaries, or habitual residents of the United States, or in the case of an unpublished audiovisual work, all the authors are legal entities with headquarters in the United States; or (c) a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work incorporated in a building or structure that is located in the United States. So, if you publish your work first overseas and not simultaneously in the United States and the authors are not US citizens or residents, the obligation to register will not usually apply. See generally Circular 1. ?
  2. Footnote 2 in the Opinion also includes a fun quote from Justin Hughes, Restating Copyright Law’s Originality Requirement, 44 COLUMBIA J. L. & ARTS 383, 408 “this debate is an unnecessary detour since “[t]he day sentient refugees from some intergalactic war arrive on Earth and are granted asylum in Iceland, copyright law will be the least of our problems.”  ?
  3. “A camera may generate only a “mechanical reproduction” of a scene, but does so only after the photographer develops a “mental conception” of the photograph, which is given its final form by that photographer’s decisions like “posing the [subject] in front of the camera, selecting and arranging the costume, draperies, and other various accessories in said photograph, arranging the subject so as to present graceful outlines, arranging and disposing the light and shade, suggesting and evoking the desired expression, and from such disposition, arrangement, or representation” crafting the overall image. Human involvement in, and ultimate creative control over, the work at issue was key to the conclusion that the new type of work fell within the bounds of copyright.” citing Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony 111 U.S. 53, 59 – 60 (1884).  ?
  4. (Slip op. 13) citing a letter from Senators Tilllis and Coons to the Director of the USPTO and the Register of Copyrights calling for the establishment of a national commission on AI.  ?
  5. See e.g Telstra v PDC at [118] – [119] and [169].  ?

Copyright and another AI Read More »

Motherland, Mothersky and Mother

The Full Court has allowed Energy Beverages’ (EB) appeal opposing Canteralla’s registration of MOTHER as a trade mark for coffee and related products. However, the Full Court rejected EB’s appeal against the removal of its MOTHERLAND trade mark for non-use. In the process, the Full Court provided helpful clarification of the role of Trade Marks Act s44(3)(b) “other circumstances”.

Some background

Cantarella applied to register MOTHERSKY in class 30 in respect of coffee, coffee beans and chocolate, coffee beverages and chocolate beverages and in class 41 in respect of coffee roasting and coffee grinding (TMA 1819816).

EB – the producer and distributor of the MOTHER energy drink – opposed, relying on its prior registered trade marks for MOTHERLAND (TM 1345404), MOTHER LOADED ICED COFFEE (TM 1408011) and MOTHER (TM 1230388) all registered, amongst other things, for non-alcoholic beverages.

Cantarella countered by seeking the removal of the MOTHERLAND and MOTHER LOADED ICED COFFEE marks for non-use under s 92 and deleting coffee beverages and chocolate beverages from its specification of goods.

The delegate ordered removal of MOTHERLAND (here) and MOTHER LOADED ICED COFFEE (here) from the Register for non-use. The delegate also dismissed EB’s opposition to the registration of MOTHERSKY. On appeal, the primary Judge upheld the delegates’ decisions.

EB sought leave to appeal the decisions in respect of MOTHERLAND and allowing the registration of MOTHERSKY. The Full Court refused leave to appeal the MOTHERLAND decision but allowed leave and upheld the appeal against registration of MOTHERSKY.[1]

MOTHERLAND

At [61], the Full Court quoted the well settled principles for trade mark use from Nature’s Blend:

(1) Use as a trade mark is use of the mark as a “badge of origin”, a sign used to distinguish goods dealt with in the course of trade by a person from goods so dealt with by someone else: Coca-Cola Co v All-Fect Distributors Ltd (1999) 96 FCR 107 at 19; E & J Gallo Winery v Lion Nathan Australia Pty Ltd (2010) 265 ALR 645 at [43] (Lion Nathan).

(2) A mark may contain descriptive elements but still be a “badge of origin”: Johnson & Johnson Aust Pty Ltd v Sterling Pharmaceuticals Pty Ltd (1991) 30 FCR 326 at 347–8; 101 ALR 700 at 723; 21 IPR 1 at 24 (Johnson & Johnson); Pepsico Australia Pty Ltd v Kettle Chip Co Pty Ltd (1996) 135 ALR 192; 33 IPR 161; Aldi Stores Ltd Partnership v Frito-Lay Trading GmbH (2001) 190 ALR 185; 54 IPR 344; [2001] FCA 1874 at [60] (Aldi Stores).

(3) The appropriate question to ask is whether the impugned words would appear to consumers as possessing the character of the brand: Shell Company of Australia Ltd v Esso Standard Oil (Australia) Ltd (1963) 109 CLR 407 at 422; [1963] ALR 634 at 636; 1B IPR 523 at 532 (Shell Co).

(4) The purpose and nature of the impugned use is the relevant inquiry in answering the question whether the use complained of is use “as a trade mark”: Johnson & Johnson at FCR 347; ALR 723; IPR 24 per Gummow J; Shell Co at CLR 422; ALR 636; IPR 532.

(5) Consideration of the totality of the packaging, including the way in which the words are displayed in relation to the goods and the existence of a label of a clear and dominant brand, are relevant in determining the purpose and nature (or “context”) of the impugned words: Johnson & Johnson at FCR 347; ALR 723; IPR 24; Anheuser-Busch Inc v Budejovicky Budvar (2002) 56 IPR 182; [2002] FCA 390 (Anheuser-Busch).

(6) In determining the nature and purpose of the impugned words, the court must ask what a person looking at the label would see and take from it: Anheuser-Busch at [186] and the authorities there cited.

The problem for EB was that its product is the energy drink MOTHER and its uses of MOTHERLAND focused on it being a fictional fantasyland tailored to “MOTHER-drinking” consumers.

An example of its use, taken from one of two commercials using MOTHERLAND, is:

Another example of use – the description in the “About Us” page of EB’s YouTube channel was “Welcome to MOTHERland”.

The Full Court considered that EB used only MOTHER as a trade mark in respect of energy drinks; MOTHERLAND was just used as the name of the fictional theme park and no more. Accepting that there could be more than one trade mark used in relation to a product, in context MOTHERLAND was not being used as a trade mark to indicate the trade source of the drink. At [67] – [68]:

The depiction of MOTHERLAND in the commercial with the prominent MOTHER in the well-known gothic script representation in contradistinction to LAND, appended in plain red font, emphasises the use of the distinctive gothic script MOTHER mark as the only mark possessing the character of a brand. MOTHERLAND was the name of the fictional theme park, and no more.

The presence of the dominant gothic script MOTHER mark each time MOTHERLAND appears in the commercial, including as the central part of the mark itself, is part of the context relevant to the assessment of the role of MOTHERLAND: Anheuser at [191]. The focus on the well-known gothic script MOTHER, including as part of MOTHERLAND, supports the conclusion that the gothic script MOTHER is the only mark being used to distinguish the MOTHER energy drinks in the commercial from the energy drinks of others.

There was a further problem with reliance on the commercials. The commercials had been run on television well before the non-use period. The commercials had also remained publicly available during the non-use period as they had been uploaded to EB’s YouTube and Facebook pages. There was no evidence, however, that anyone in Australia had accessed the commercials on either site. At [76], the Full Court explained:

Under existing authority, which has not been challenged in the present application, the mere uploading of trade mark content on a website outside Australia is not sufficient to constitute use of the trade mark in Australia …

citing Ward Group Pty Ltd v Brodie & Stone plc [2005] FCA 471; 143 FCR 479; Sports Warehouse Inc v Fry Consulting Pty Ltd [2010] FCA 664; 186 FCR 519; Christian v Societe Des Produits Nestle SA (No 2) [2015] FCAFC 153; 327 ALR 630.

Consequently, EB failed to demonstrate that the primary judge’s order to remove MOTHERLAND for non-use in respect of non-alcoholic beverages etc. was attended by sufficient doubt to warrant leave being granted to appeal.

MOTHERSKY

Despite the deletion of coffee beverages from Cantarella’s specification of goods, both parties conducted the proceedings on the basis that “coffee” included coffee beverages, not just the product of the coffee plant or coffee beans.

In contrast to the MOTHERLAND proceeding, the Full Court found that the primary judge made two material errors. First, his Honour had examined whether coffee beverages were similar goods to energy drinks and the powders and syrups for bottling energy drinks and concluded that the respective products had fundamentally different taste and flavour and were presented for sale and consumed in different circumstances.

This was in error. Section 44(1) calls for comparison of Cantarella’s “coffee” across the full scope of its normal and fair meaning to the full scope of EB’s specification. The correct comparison therefore was between “coffee” and “non-alcoholic beverages”.

Given the way the case had been conducted, the Full Court had little difficulty concluding that coffee beverages were “non-alcoholic beverages” within the scope of EB’s registration.

The fact that coffee as a beverage was classified in class 30 and not class 32 was a matter of administrative convenience and, at [132], irrelevant given Cantarella contended “coffee” covered “coffee beverages”.

Further, contrary to the primary judge’s approach, Cantarella’s claim for “coffee beverages” was not limited to “pure” coffee but extended across a range of beverages. Cantarella argued that coffee beverage did not include coffee flavoured milk. The Full Court accepted at [129] that there may be “a penumbra of uncertainty” about when a coffee flavoured beverage is not “coffee”. Treating “coffee” as meaning “coffee beverage”, however, at [128]:

there is nothing in the specification, so construed, which would limit the meaning of “coffee” to any particular coffee beverage or to any particular kind or type of coffee beverage. For example, there is nothing to limit “coffee” to black coffee as opposed to white coffee or coffee made with milk. There is nothing to limit “coffee” to coffee that does not include some additive such as, for example, a flavoured syrup. Further, there is nothing to limit “coffee” to a hot beverage or a freshly-brewed beverage as opposed to a cold or iced beverage. Further still, there is nothing to limit “coffee” to coffee produced by a particular process or prepared in a particular way, or to coffee packaged and promoted in a particular way. There are many permutations of what constitutes “coffee” as a beverage. Thus, coffee beverages cover a range of goods.

Further still, there was a sufficient body of evidence demonstrating that, at the priority date of the MOTHERSKY application, drinks such as pre-packaged iced coffee were regarded in the trade as non-alcoholic beverages and, further, of overlap between the trade channels through which coffee beverages and energy drinks were marketed and sold.

Secondly, the Full Court considered the primary judge materially erred when undertaking the deceptive similarity comparison.

The Full Court recognised that the comparison the test of deceptive similarity called for involved matters of judgment and degree about which opinions could reasonably differ. In the absence of legal error, mere difference of opinion was not enough. In undertaking the comparison, however, the primary judge’s assessment was heavily coloured by his Honour’s conclusion that “coffee beverages” and the goods covered by EB’s MOTHER registration were not the same or even of the same description.

Further, the primary judge erred by comparing only the specific way Cantarella actually used its trade mark with the specific way EB used its mark rather than comparing how notionally the competing marks could fairly be used across their full scope.

Undertaking the comparison themselves, the Full Court concluded that MOTHERSKY was deceptively similar to MOTHER.

First, at [167], while “mother” is a commonly used English word, it is not in any way descriptive of “non-alcoholic beverages” and was inherently distinctive of such goods. This was of considerable importance in the assessment. (emphasis supplied)

Secondly, at [168], “mother” was wholly incorporated in MOTHERSKY and did not lose its identify merely by the addition of “sky”.

Thirdly, at [169] to [170], “sky” did not have a well-understood meaning when added to “mother”. It might for example be understood according to its ordinary signification. Or it might be treated as some sort of playful variant or as creating a diminutive of “mother”. The Full Court considered that “mother” remained the dominanting element and, consequently, the likelihood of confusion arose.

As a result, s 44(1) operated to preclude registration of MOTHERSKY in the face of EB’s MOTHER registration for non-alcoholic beverages.

Other circumstances

It is well established that the registrability of a trade mark application falls to be determined at the date of the application.

Cantarella’s tactic of applying to clear the way for its MOTHERSKY application by removing EB’s blocking registrations for non-use is also long-standing although, of course, as at the date of the MOTHERSKY application, EB’s registrations were still in the way – removal for non-use being prospective, not retrospective.

At [176] – [178], however, the Full Court endorsed the Registrar’s practice (albeit by way of obiter dicta) of allowing an application to proceed to registration if the blocking citation was removed for non-use as “other circumstances” for the purposes of s44(3)(b). There would be “something perverse” in testing the registrability of the application against a mark which will be removed from the Register.

It is understood that an application for special leave to appeal to the High Court has been filed.

Energy Beverages LLC v Cantarella Bros Pty Ltd [2023] FCAFC 44 (Yates, Stewart and Rofe JJ)


  1. Leave to appeal being required under s 195(2) and so EB needed to persuade the Full Court that “(a) whether, in all the circumstances, the decision below is attended with sufficient doubt to warrant it being considered by a Full Court; and (b) whether substantial injustice would result if leave were refused, supposing the decision to be wrong.” citing Decor Corp Pty Ltd v Dart Industries Inc (1991) 33 FCR 397 at 398 – 399 and Primary Health Care Ltd v Commonwealth [2017] FCAFC 174; 260 FCR 359 at [206].  ?

Motherland, Mothersky and Mother Read More »