Judge Brinkema, sitting as a District Court Judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, has upheld the USPTO’s rejection of Thaler’s DABUS applications on the basis that DABUS cannot be an inventor under the US Act.
In the United States, Dr Thaler has two patent applications – US Application Serial Nos 16/524,350 and 16/534,532. In both, DABUS was the nominated inventor and Dr Thaler claims entitlement on the basis of assignment.
As you will no doubt recall, DABUS is a “creativity machine” or artificial intelligence.
To highlight the
ludicrousnessfictional nature of the universe we are operating in, Dr Thaler as the owner of DABUS executed the assignment to himself:
In view of the fact that the sole inventor is a Creativity Machine, with no legal personality or capability to execute said agreement, and in view of the fact that the assignee is the owner of said Creativity Machine, this Assignment is considered enforceable without an explicit execution by the inventor. Rather, the owner of DABUS, the Creativity Machine, is signing this Assignment on its behalf.
When the America Invents Act was passed, amongst other things it inserted a definition of “inventor” into the Act so that 35 USC §100(f) provides:
(f) The term “inventor” means the individual or, if a joint invention, the individuals collectively who invented or discovered the subject matter of the invention.
Perhaps (with respect) unsurprisingly, Judge Brinkema ruled that “individual” meant a natural person.
In doing so, her Honour was fortified by the natural or ordinary meaning of the word. Contextually, there were also other references in the Act where Congress had used the term “individual” in reference to the inventor. (For example, §115(a)(1) and (b)(2).)
In addition, the Supreme Court had construed the term “individual” in the Torture Victim Protection Act as referring to a “natural person”. And several Federal Circuit decisions had declared that “inventors must be natural persons” albeit not in the context of the meaning of §100(f).
Judge Brinkema then explained that Dr Thaler “having neither facts nor law to support his argument” contends that policy considerations and the general purpose of the Constitution’s Patent Clause required the statute to be interpreted to permit AIs to be inventors:
Allowing patents for AI-Generated Inventions will result in more innovation. It will incentivize the development of AI capable of producing patentable output by making that output more valuable …. Patents also incentivize commercialization and disclosure of information, and this incentive applies with equal force to a human and an AI-Generated Invention. By contrast, denying patent protection for AI-Generated Inventions threatens to undermine the patent system by failing to encourage the production of socially valuable inventions.
Patent law also protects the moral rights of human inventors and listing an AI as an inventor where appropriate would protect these human rights …. [I]t will discourage individuals from listing themselves as inventors without having contributed to an invention’s conception merely because their name is needed to obtain a patent. Allowing a person to be listed as an inventor for an AI-Generated Invention would not be unfair to an AI, which has no interest in being acknowledged, but allowing people to take credit for work they have not done would devalue human inventorship.
Judge Brinkema considered that binding rulings of the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit repeatedly held that policy arguments could not override a statute’s plain language. Her Honour also pointed out that, when Congress passed the America Invents Act, AIs were in existence and it was aware of them. Moreover, the USPTO’s own consultations had not exposed any strong support for AIs to be inventors.
Ruling against Thaler, Judge Brinkema concluded:
As technology evolves, there may come a time when artificial intelligence reaches a level of sophistication such that it might satisfy accepted meanings of inventorship. But that time has not yet arrived, and, if it does, it will be up to Congress to decide how, if at all, it wants to expand the scope of patent law.
What does this mean for Australia?
Plainly, the American context is not directly applicable to Australia since, as Beach J pointed out at , our Act does not have a definition of “inventor”. So, there is much greater scope for policy arguments to operate.
In that connection, the USPTO report cited by Judge Brinkema can be found here.
Ordinarily, I would be on the side of progress: the NRDC view of the world rather than D’Arcy v Myriad. Our courts, of course, must fit within the D’Arcy v Myriad world view unless Parliament were to bestir itself.
Apart from South Africa (which I understand does not undertake substantive examination of patent applications), Dr Thaler’s applications have been rejected on the ground that an AI is not an inventor by the UKIPO and EPO as well as in the USA. Government policy, which appears to have aligned with the Productivity Commission‘s argument that Australia as an intellectual property importing nation should not be out of step with the international environment, would suggest that an AI should not qualify as an inventor. Can we really afford to keep repeating the mistake made in the 3M case? However, an appeal is pending in the EPO. Maybe there will be an appeal in the USA too but the Federal Circuit’s prior indications do not augur well for the success of that.
It is also difficult to comprehend why, if as our Courts have ruled, that authors for copyright purposes must be humans, the same does not apply to inventors. Of course, our law now explicitly recognises moral rights as part of an author’s rights and there is no corresponding provision under Australian patent law. But both types of rights are justified by the same rationales – natural law or Lockean theory of property and, even, the so-called utilitarian theory.
I guess we shall see.
Thaler v Hirshfield ED VA, 2 September 2021 1:20-cv-903 (LMB/TCB)
Lid dip, Prof. Dennis Crouch at Patently-O.