- A recap
- Patents Act 1977 (UK) ss 7 and 13
- Can an AI be an inventor?
- Dr Thaler was not entitled to the inventions
- Birss LJ dissented
- A moral right
In late 2018, Dr Thaler applied for the grant of two patents, GB18116909.4 entitled “Food Container” concerning the shape of parts of packaging for food and and GB1818161.0 entitled “Devices and Methods for Attracting Enhanced Attention” for a form of flashing light.
In his application forms, Dr Thaler named DABUS as the inventor and stated that his entitlement arose “by ownership of the creativity machine ‘DABUS’”.
In later, amended forms, Dr Thaler explained “the applicant identified no person or persons whom he believes to be an inventor as the invention was entirely and solely conceived by DABUS”.
Patents Act 1977 (UK) ss 7 and 13
Section 7 of the UK’s Patents Act 1977 defines who is entitled to apply for and obtain a patent:
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.
Section 13 of the UK Act further provides:
13 Mention of inventor.
(1)The inventor or joint inventors of an invention shall have a right to be mentioned as such in any patent granted for the invention and shall also have a right to be so mentioned if possible in any published application for a patent for the invention and, if not so mentioned, a right to be so mentioned in accordance with rules in a prescribed document.
(2)Unless he has already given the Patent Office the information hereinafter mentioned, an applicant for a patent shall within the prescribed period file with the Patent Office a statement—
(a)identifying the person or persons whom he believes to be the inventor or inventors; and
(b)where the applicant is not the sole inventor or the applicants are not the joint inventors, indicating the derivation of his or their right to be granted the patent;
and, if he fails to do so, the application shall be taken to be withdrawn.
(3)Where a person has been mentioned as sole or joint inventor in pursuance of this section, any other person who alleges that the former ought not to have been so mentioned may at any time apply to the comptroller for a certificate to that effect, and the comptroller may issue such a certificate; and if he does so, he shall accordingly rectify any undistributed copies of the patent and of any documents prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1) above.
Can an AI be an inventor?
All three judges were in agreement that DABUS, as an AI, cannot be an inventor because an inventor must be a person.
At  Arnold LJ, who gave the lead judgment for the majority, said:
In my judgment it is clear that, upon a systematic interpretation of the 1977 Act, only a person can be an “inventor”. The starting point is section 130(1) which provides that “‘inventor’ has the meaning assigned to it by section 7 above”. Section 7(3) provides that “‘inventor’ in relation to an invention means the actual deviser of the invention”. A dictionary definition of “deviser” is “a person who devises; a contriver, a planner, an inventor” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th edition, Oxford University Press, 2002). Section 7(2) provides that a patent may be granted (a) “primarily to the inventor or joint inventors”, (b) “to any person or persons who …”, (c) “the successor or successors in title of any person or persons mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b) above”, but “to no other person”. As Lord Hoffmann explained in Yeda Research and Development Company Ltd v. Rhone-Poulenc Rorer International Holdings  UKHL 43,  Bus LR 1796 at , this is “an exhaustive code”. It is clear from this code that category (a) must consist of a person or persons, just as much as categories (b) and (c) do. Section 7(4) creates a presumption that “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”. Again, it is plain that only a person can be entitled under section 7(2), and thus only a person can fall within paragraph (a).
Similarly, at  – , Birss LJ said:
50 Second, a purpose of the definition of inventor in section 7(3) was to change the law, from the old law going back to the Statute of Monopolies, and to abolish the idea of a true and first inventor who could be anyone other than the actual deviser of the invention. The concept of the actual deviser of the invention was already known to United Kingdom patent law from the 1949 Act (s16). It was the person who actually devised the invention. The contrast was between that person and others who had not done so but were regarded as the true and first inventor, e.g. importers. So in Yeda paragraph  the contrast was drawn between the actual deviser and a pretended or deemed deviser.
51 The rest of the 1977 Act is drafted on the footing that the inventor is a person. For example s7(2)(c) of the 1977 Act refers to “person or persons mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b)” and s13 of the Act require an applicant to identify the “person or persons whom he believes to be the inventor or inventors”. However, for what it is worth, I would hold that the mechanism by which the inventor is a person in the scheme of the 1977 Act is because the “actual deviser” is a person and so, by definition in s7(3), is the inventor.
and at  – :
54 I conclude that the answer to the first question is a simple one. Within the meaning of the 1977 Act the “inventor” is the person who actually devised the invention.
55 That conclusion is arrived at without any need to examine the policy arguments raised by both parties. Machines are not persons. The fact that machines can now create inventions, which is what Dr Thaler says happened in this case, would not mean that machines are inventors within the meaning of the Act. Assuming the machine is the entity which actually created these inventions, it has no right to be mentioned as the inventor and no right to employee’s compensation under s39 (which no doubt it never had anyway).
At , Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing explained:
Both Birss LJ and Arnold LJ agree that the clear effect of the relevant provisions of the 1977 Act is that an inventor must be a person. I also agree with that conclusion. Rights are a consistent theme which runs through section 7. Only a person can have rights. A machine cannot. The premise of section 7 is that an inventor is and can only be a person. A patent can be granted ‘primarily to the inventor’, and only to someone else in the circumstances described in section 7(2)(c) and (d). A patent is a statutory right and it can only be granted to a person. That means that the effect of section 7(2)(a) is that the inventor must be a person. Only a person can make, before the invention is made, an enforceable agreement by which he is entitled to the whole of the property in the invention (other than equitable interests) (section 7(2)(b)). Such an agreement can only be made with another person. Only a person can have a successor in title (section 7(2)(c)). It follows that, absent a statutory deeming provision, it is simply not possible, as a matter of law, for Dabus to be an ‘inventor’ for the purposes of section 7. Nor, for the reasons given by Arnold LJ, has Dr Thaler identified any enactment of rule of law by which he is entitled to that property (even if he could, that would not help his case, because it would not overcome the hurdle that Dabus in not an inventor for the purposes of the Act). Only a person has a right to be named as an inventor (section 13(1)). Section 13(2)(a) also assumes that the inventor is a person. Arnold LJ gives many other examples of provisions in the 1977 Act which support that construction.
Dr Thaler was not entitled to the inventions
In the Court of Appeal, Dr Thaler appears to have shifted ground from the position taken before Marcus Smith J.
Dr Thaler accepted he was not entitled to the inventions under s 7 as the inventor. At , Arnold LJ recorded that Dr Thaler also abandoned his claim to entitlement on the basis of an assignment from DABUS. Instead, Dr Thaler based his entitlement on the doctine of accession. Dr Thaler’s argument was that as the owner of DABUS he was the owner of the inventions it produced just as the owner of a cow is the owner of its calves.
At , Arnold LJ cited Blackstone for the common law definition of the doctrine of accession on which Dr Thaler relied:
“The doctrine of property arising from accession is also grounded on the right of occupancy. By the Roman law, if any given corporeal substance received afterwards an accession by natural or by artificial means, as the growth of vegetables, the pregnancy of animals, the embroidering of cloth, or the conversion of wood or metal into vessels and utensils, the original owner of the thing was intitled by right of possession to the property of it under such it’s statement of improvement; but of the thing itself, by such operation, was changed into a different species, as by making wine, oil, or bread, out of another’s grapes, olives, or wheat, it belonged to the new operator; who was only to make a satisfaction to the former proprietor for the materials, which he had converted. And these doctrines are implicitly copied and adopted by our Bracton, in the reign of king Henry III; and have since been confirmed by many resolutions of the courts.”
Arnold LJ explained that the doctrine of accession was rooted in the principle of “dominion” – exclusive possession: a person who has exclusive possession of a tangible (the cow) which produces a tangible (a calf) will generally also have exclusive possession of the tangible produced.
However, an invention is information, an intangible. As an intangible, Arnold LJ noted at  it was distinguishable from a tangible on the basis that intangibles are non-rivalrous goods: they were capable of simultaneous consumption by more than one person. Accordingly, a new intangible is not capable of exclusive possession.
Furthermore, Dr Thaler was forced to accept that the doctrine of accession did not apply to at least some situations where an intangible was produced by a tangible. At , Arnold LJ gave the example of a photograph taken by A using a camera owned by B: subject to an agreement to the contrary, the copyright in the photograph would be owned by the photographer, not the owner of the camera.
Arnold LJ considered that Dr Thaler’s arguments were more about what the law should be rather than what it is. As to what it is, his Lordship said at  it ran into two obstacles:
…. As matters stand, it seems to me that the argument faces two obstacles. The first is that it pre-supposes that a machine can be an inventor for the purposes of the 1977 Act. The second is that I cannot see any basis in current law for a person to have a legal right to stand in the place of a machine with respect to the right to apply for a patent, because that pre-supposes that the machine would otherwise have that right, but as noted above machines do not have rights. A point which underlies both these obstacles is that modern patent law is almost entirely a creature of statute.
Accordingly, Dr Thaler’s applications should be rejected.
Birss LJ dissented
Despite agreeing that an AI was not an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act 1977, Birss LJ would have allowed the appeal. For his Lordship, it was no part of the Comptroller’s role under section 13 to inquire into whether DABUS was in fact an inventor.
To reach this conclusion, Birss LJ examined the history of s 13 and its predecessor under the Patents Act 1949, s 16. Section 16 of the 1949 Act wrought a number of changes. One of those was to permit assignment of the right to apply for a patent which in turn brought in the requirement that the assignee applicant provide an assent from the inventor.
The Banks Committee, however, reported that these arrangements had led to a number of problems. One problem was the difficulty in confidently identifying the inventors. A second problem was that at the examination stage the Comptroller was in no position to check the accuracy of claims to inventorship or assignment. At , Birss LJ explained that the Banks Committee had recommended abolishing declarations of inventorship and assent:
This, we think, would simplify the procedure for applicants, protect patentees against invalidation of their patents through inadvertent error in naming inventors, give recognition to the fact that the Patent Office is in no position to check the completeness of declarations of assent and inventorship at present required (which therefore provide no real safeguard against wrongful obtaining of patents), and abolish the anomaly of “communicated” invention. We realise, however, that safeguards are necessary to protect the interests of inventors, and would stress that making of any application by a person other than the inventor should not imply in any way that the inventor has assented to the making of the application or acknowledged the right of the applicant to make it. Furthermore, since we believe that it is most important that the contribution of the inventor, where he is not the applicant, should not be overlooked, we recommend that the applicant, both in Convention and in non-Convention applications, should be required to name the person(s) believed to be the inventor(s), who would then be named in the published specification, but that the fulfilling of this requirement should not prejudice the right of any other person to apply under section 16 of the  Act to be mentioned in the patent, nor should a bona fide error in the naming of inventors invalidate a patent. Where disputes arise over ownership of applications or patents, a new procedure will be necessary for their resolution, and this we recommend in Chapter 13.
Having regard to this history, Birss LJ considered at  –  that the requirements of s 13(2)(a) would be satisfied so long as the applicant identified who the applicant believed was the inventor. Correspondingly, s 13(2)(b) merely required the applicant to identify the basis on which the applicant claimed derivation from the inventor.
It was no part of the Comptroller’s role, at this stage, to investigate whether or not the identified inventor was in fact legally an inventor or the identified basis of derivation was legally effective. Any other approach would resurrect the very problems encountered under the 1949 Act [s 16][49uk].
In light of this conclusion, his Lordship did not consider Dr Thaler’s arguments based on the doctrine of accession.
With respect, a difficulty with Birss LJ’s approach is that an application would proceed to grant and could be asserted against third parties, or block subsequent applications, unless someone came forward to challenge the grant. And under the UK Act it seems objections on the ground of entitlement can be brought only by someone else claiming entitlement: See Birss LJ at  citing s 72.
Arnold LJ (with the agreement of Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing) accepted that the role of the Comptroller under s 13 was limited. His Lordship considered, however, rejection of Dr Thaler’s application did not involve such issues. Rather, the Comptroller took the information provided by Dr Thaler at face value and on its face that information failed to identify the person who was the inventor or any basis operative to transfer the rights of an inventor to Dr Thaler.
As the applications failed to comply with two important statutory requirements, therefore, Arnold LJ held at  that the Comptroller was right to reject them.
A moral right
Before concluding, it is worth also noting that the Court of Appeal recognised that the requirement to identify the inventor is really a species of moral right. As Arnold LJ noted at , a paternity right: the right to be identified as the creator. At , Birss LJ noted the Banks Committee’s recognition that:
it is most important that the contribution of the inventor, where he is not the applicant, should not be overlooked, we recommend that the applicant, both in Convention and in non-Convention applications, should be required to name the person(s) believed to be the inventor(s), who would then be named in the published specification….
Thaler v Comptroller General of Patents Trade Marks And Designs  EWCA Civ 1374 (Arnold and Elisabeth Laing LJJ, Birss LJ dissenting)
- See Foster’s Australia Limited v Cash’s (Australia) Pty Ltd  FCA 527. Section 31 extends s 29 to joint applicants. ?
- Section 13 of the UK Act does not have a counterpart in the Australian Act. However, ss 29(4A) and (4B) require applications to be in the approved form – which requires the inventor to be identified and reg. 3.2C(2)(aa) requires applications under the PCT to identify the inventor. ?
- Before Beach J in Australia, Dr Thaler also accepted that, as an artificial intelligence system is not a legal person, DABUS could not legally assign the invention: see e.g. . ?
- In Australia, see Copyright Act 1968 s 35, bearing in mind there are exceptions for works made in the course of employment, taking of photographs for a private or domestic purpose or the exception for photographs taken by journalists for newspapers etc. ?
- A problem finally addressed in the Patents Act 1990 (Cth) by the enactment in the “Raising the Bar” Act of s 22A and s 138(4). ?
- At , Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing explained “It will be clear from what I have already said that I do not agree that section 13(2)(a) only requires an applicant to ‘state their genuine belief about who the inventor was’ (judgment, paragraph 60). Rather, it expressly requires the applicant to identify the person who, he believes, is the inventor. That is a different requirement, and it is not met by a statement that the applicant genuinely believes that the invention was devised by a machine ….” (emphasis supplied) ?