A strong Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia has ruled that DABUS, an artificial intelligence, is not an inventor for the purposes of patent law. So, Dr Thaler’s application for DABUS’ patent has been rejected. No doubt the robot will be back again and we can expect that an application for special leave will be pending soon.
Dr Thaler had applied for a patent, No. 2019363177 entitled “Food container and devices and methods for attracting enhanced attention”, naming DABUS – an acronym for ‘device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience’ – as the inventor.
The Commissioner had rejected the application under reg. 3.2C for failure to identify the inventor. That rejection was overturned by Beach J on appeal from the Commissioner. And this was the decision on the Commissioner’s appeal.
Essentially, the Full Court ruled that an inventor for the purposes of patent law must be a natural person, not an artificial intelligence.
The Full Court held that identification of the “inventor” was central to the scheme of the Act. This is because, under s 15, only the inventor or someone claiming through the inventor is entitled to a patent.
Under the legislation before the 1990 Act, their Honours considered that an ‘actual inventor’ could be only a person with legal personality. At , their Honours summarised:
In each of these provisions, the ability of a person to make an application for a patent was predicated upon the existence of an “actual inventor” from whom the entitlement to the patent was directly or indirectly derived. Paragraphs (a), (c) and (e) describe the actual inventor as, respectively, a person, one that is deceased and has a legal representative (which must be a person), and one that is not resident in Australia. Paragraphs (b), (d), (f) and (fa) all contemplate an assignment happening between the patent applicant and the actual inventor. It is clear from these provisions that only a person with a legal personality could be the “actual inventor” under this legislative scheme.
This scheme, and its consequences, did not materially change under the 1990 Act.
Acknowledging that a none of the case law had to consider whether an AI could be an inventor, the Full Court noted that the ‘entitlement’ cases proceeded on the basis that ‘inventor’ meant the ‘actual inventor’. Their Honours considered the cases interpreting this expression were all premised on the ‘actual inventor’ – the person whose mind devised the claimed invention – being a natural person. At  and , their Honours explained:
None of the cases cited in the preceding five paragraphs confronted the question that arose before the primary judge of whether or not the “inventor” could include an artificial intelligence machine. We do not take the references in those cases to “person” to mean, definitively, that an inventor under the Patents Act and Regulations must be a human. However, it is plain from these cases that the law relating to the entitlement of a person to the grant of a patent is premised upon an invention for the purposes of the Patents Act arising from the mind of a natural person or persons. Those who contribute to, or supply, the inventive concept are entitled to the grant. The grant of a patent for an invention rewards their ingenuity.
Where s 15(1)(a) provides that a patent for an invention may only be granted to “a person who is an inventor”, the reference to “a person” emphasises, in context, that this is a natural person. …. (emphasis supplied)
Given that conclusion, and the structure of s 15, Dr Thaler’s argument that he was entitled on the basis of ownership of the output of DABUS’ efforts was to no avail. At :
… having regard to the view that we have taken to the construction of s 15(1) and reg 3.2C(2)(aa) [i]t is not to the point that Dr Thaler may have rights to the output of DABUS. Only a natural person can be an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act and Regulations. Such an inventor must be identified for any person to be entitled to a grant of a patent under ss 15(1)(b)-(d). (emphasis supplied)
The Full Court then drew support from the High Court’s reasoning in D’Arcy v Myriad esp. at  in which the majority emphasised that patentable subject matter had to be the product of “human action”.
Although not put in this way, it is apparent that policy considerations played a significant role in their Honours’ conclusion. At  to , their Honours pointed out:
in filing the application, Dr Thaler no doubt intended to provoke debate as to the role that artificial intelligence may take within the scheme of the Patents Act and Regulations. Such debate is important and worthwhile. However, in the present case it clouded consideration of the prosaic question before the primary judge, which concerned the proper construction of s 15 and reg 3.2C(2)(aa). In our view, there are many propositions that arise for consideration in the context of artificial intelligence and inventions. They include whether, as a matter of policy, a person who is an inventor should be redefined to include an artificial intelligence. If so, to whom should a patent be granted in respect of its output? The options include one or more of: the owner of the machine upon which the artificial intelligence software runs, the developer of the artificial intelligence software, the owner of the copyright in its source code, the person who inputs the data used by the artificial intelligence to develop its output, and no doubt others. If an artificial intelligence is capable of being recognised as an inventor, should the standard of inventive step be recalibrated such that it is no longer judged by reference to the knowledge and thought processes of the hypothetical uninventive skilled worker in the field? If so, how? What continuing role might the ground of revocation for false suggestion or misrepresentation have, in circumstances where the inventor is a machine?
Those questions and many more require consideration. Having regard to the agreed facts in the present case, it would appear that this should be attended to with some urgency. However, the Court must be cautious about approaching the task of statutory construction by reference to what it might regard as desirable policy, imputing that policy to the legislation, and then characterising that as the purpose of the legislation …. (emphasis supplied)
Finally, in this quick reaction, it can be noted that the Full Court recognised that their Honours’ decision was consistent with the English Court of Appeal’s decision on the counterpart application. Their Honours considered, however, there were sufficient differences in the legislative schemes that a wholly autocthonous solution should be essayed.
Commissioner of Patents v Thaler  FCAFC 62 (Allsop CJ, Nicholas, Yates, Moshinsky And Burley JJ)