UKSC rejects Thaler and DABUS

The United Kingdom Supreme Court has ruled that DABUS is not an inventor for the purposes of UK patent law and so Dr Thaler’s applications for a patent claimed to be invented by DABUS have failed.

You will recall that Dr Thaler has applied in the UK (and many other parts of the world) for the grant of patents in his name for inventions said to have been generated by a machine acting autonomously and powered by the artificial intelligence, DABUS.

Section 7 of the UK Patents Act 1977 provides in part:

7 Right to apply for and obtain a patent.

(1) Any person may make an application for a patent either alone or jointly with another.

(2) A patent for an invention may be granted—

(a) primarily to the inventor or joint inventors;

(b) in preference to the foregoing, to any person or persons who, by virtue of any enactment or rule of law, or any foreign law or treaty or international convention, or by virtue of an enforceable term of any agreement entered into with the inventor before the making of the invention, was or were at the time of the making of the invention entitled to the whole of the property in it (other than equitable interests) in the United Kingdom;

(c) in any event, to the successor or successors in title of any person or persons mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b) above or any person so mentioned and the successor or successors in title of another person so mentioned;

and to no other person.

(3) In this Act ‘inventor’ in relation to an invention means the actual deviser of the invention and ‘joint inventor’ shall be construed accordingly.

(4) Except so far as the contrary is established, a person who makes an application for a patent shall be taken to be the person who is entitled under subsection (2) above to be granted a patent and two or more persons who make such an application jointly shall be taken to be the persons so entitled.

Further, section 13 reinforced the centrality of the position of “the inventor” in the scheme of the Act.

Lord Kitchin pointed out that s 7(2) read with s 7(3) provides an exhaustive code for determining who is entitled to a patent. And, just like s 15(1) of the Patents Act, that is the inventor or someone claiming through the inventor.

Unlike the Australian Act, section 7 of the UK Act also includes s 7(4) which defines the inventor as “the actual deviser of the invention”.

Unlike the approach taken by the Australian High Court, Lord Kitchin (with whom Lords Hodge, Hamblen, Leggatt and Richards agreed) considered it was entirely proper for the Comptroller-General to take Dr Thaler’s statements at face value.

Accordingly, at [56], Lord Kitchin ruled that an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act 1977 must be a natural person and, as DABUS was not a person, it was not the inventor.

In my judgment, the position taken by the Comptroller on this issue is entirely correct. The structure and content of sections 7 and 13 of the Act, on their own and in the context of the Act as a whole, permit only one interpretation: an inventor within the meaning of the 1977 Act must be a natural person, and DABUS is not a person at all, let alone a natural person: it is a machine and on the factual assumption underpinning these proceedings, created or generated the technical advances disclosed in the applications on its own. Here I use the term “technical advance” rather than “invention”, and the terms “create” or “generate” rather than “devise” or “invent” deliberately to avoid prejudging the first issue we have to decide. But it is indisputable that DABUS is a machine, not a person (whether natural or legal), and I do not understand Dr Thaler to suggest otherwise.

As in the Australian cases, Dr Thaler advanced an alternative claim based on the “doctrine of accession”. Thus, Dr Thaler claimed he was entitled to the patent as the owner of DABUS and so entitled to any fruits of its production.

At [83], Lord Kitchin explained Dr Thaler’s contention based “purely” on ownership of the machine:

The DABUS inventions are, he says, the fruits of (in the sense they were produced by) the DABUS machine that he owns and further, that DABUS was designed to make inventions and so these fruits were by no means unexpected. He also contends that he was and remains the first person to possess the inventions and this provides a proper basis for their ownership. In short, he contends that he derived title by operation of a rule of law (the doctrine of accession) that satisfied the terms of section 7(2)(b) of the Act and conferred on him the right to apply for and secure the grant of patent protection for any inventions made by DABUS.

This contention failed. First, as DABUS was not an inventor, at [84] it gave rise to no rights which could be claimed. That was sufficient for the application to fail.

Secondly, in any event, Dr Thaler’s invocation of the doctrine of accession was entirely misplaced. The doctrine of accession applied to new tangible property (e.g. a calf) produced by an existing tangible property (e.g. a cow), not intangible property such as inventions. At [88] – [89], Lord Kitchin explained:

We are not concerned here with a new item of tangible property produced by an existing item of tangible property, however. We are concerned with what appear (and which for present purposes we must assume) to be concepts for new and non-obvious devices and methods, and descriptions of ways to put them to into practice, all of which, so Dr Thaler maintains, have been generated autonomously by DABUS. There is no principled basis for applying the doctrine of accession in these circumstances.

For these reasons and those given by the Court of Appeal, I am satisfied that the doctrine upon which Dr Thaler relies here, that of accession, does not, as a matter of law, operate to confer on him the property in or the right to apply for and obtain a patent for any technical development made by DABUS.

As the Comptroller-General was entitled to take Dr Thaler’s claims at face value, the Comptroller-General was entitled to reject the applications as they were obviously defective: they did not identify anyone who could be the inventor or any basis on which Dr Thaler could claim to derive title from an inventor.

It should be noted that Lord Kitchin was at pains to point out that the Court was concerned with a narrow question: the meaning of section 7 and associated provisions in the UK Act. It was not concerned, he considered with broader, policy questions. His Lordship explained at [48] – [50]:

The Comptroller has emphasised, correctly in my view, that this appeal is not concerned with the broader question whether technical advances generated by machines acting autonomously and powered by AI should be patentable. Nor is it concerned with the question whether the meaning of the term “inventor” ought to be expanded, so far as necessary, to include machines powered by AI which generate new and non-obvious products and processes which may be thought to offer benefits over products and processes which are already known.

These questions raise policy issues about the purpose of a patent system, the need to incentivise technical innovation and the provision of an appropriate monopoly in return for the making available to the public of new and non-obvious technical advances, and an explanation of how to put them into practice across the range of the monopoly sought. It may be thought that the rapid advances in AI technology in recent times render these questions even more important than they were when these applications were made.

This appeal is concerned instead with the much more focused question of the correct interpretation and application of the relevant provisions of the 1977 Act to the applications made by Dr Thaler. This was the approach taken by the Comptroller, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, and rightly so.

Dr Thaler having failed to identify an inventor through whom he could claim entitlement, the Comptroller-General had been right to deem the applications withdrawn.

Thaler v Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks [2023] UKSC 49 (20 December 2023)

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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].  ?

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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 [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.  ?

Thaler (DABUS) is donged Down Under Read More »

DABUS Down Under take 3

Following last month’s ruling in Thaler that an AI could be an inventor for the purposes of Australian patent law, the Commissioner of Patents has announced her intention to appeal the decision to the Full Court.

Pursuant to s 158(2), the Commissioner requires leave to appeal. Bearing in mind that Beach J’s decision is the first substantive consideration anywhere in the world to accept that an AI could be an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act, however, that should not prove too much of an obstacle in this case.

Thaler v Commissioner of Patents [2021] FCA 879

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