18 October, 2021

An Unusual Inventor - Australian Federal Court Gives Green Light for AI Inventors of Patents

Having spoken about whether artificial intelligence could be deemed to be an inventor was something that was discussed on this blog over a year ago, with both the UK, the US and the EU, currently, not allowing for AI to be considered as an 'inventor' and therefore any inventions created by the AI would not be patentable. While this position seems to remain in those jurisdiction, an interesting development has emerged in Australia which seems to go counter to what the above jurisdictions have decided. 

The case Thaler v Commissioner of Patents concerned a patent application for a patent by Stephen Thaler (application VID108/2021) for a patent for two inventions, created by DABUS (Mr Thaler's AI system), for an improved beverage container and a flashing beacon to be used for emergencies. The case focused on whether the AI system could be an inventor under the Patents Act 1990. The Deputy Commissioner of Patents initially rejected the application as, in their view, the application didn't comply with specific requirements and that under s. 15 of the Patents Act an AI could not be treated as an inventor. Mr Thaler then sought a judicial review of the decision, which ended up in the Federal Court.

The Court first discussed the issue generally, noting that: (i) there is no specific provision in the Patents Act that expressly refutes the proposition that an artificial intelligence system can be an inventor; (ii) there is no specific aspect of patent law, unlike copyright law involving the requirement for a human author or the existence of moral rights, that would drive a construction of the Act as excluding non-human inventors; (iii) the word "inventor" has not been expressly defined and under its ordinary meaning it can include any 'agent' which invents, including AI; (iv) the definition of an "inventor" can be seen to potentially evolve and change with the times, potentially to include non-human authors; and (v) the object of the Act is to promote the economic wellbeing of the country, which should inform the construction of the Act. 

To include AI as an inventor would, according to the Court, help in promoting innovation and the promotion of economic wellbeing in Australia. But the problem of who the ultimate legal owner of the rights still remains. This would indeed promote the objective of s. 2A of the Act, which sets out the object of the Act as discussed above. 

The Court highlighted the need for a human applicant, on behalf of the AI system, for any inventions that these systems might come up with, who would then also have the rights to any patents granted for that AI system. 

The Court also discussed the notion of the "inventive step" under s. 18 of the Act, which is a legal requirement for patentability. Both s. 18 and 7, which elaborates more on the meaning of the "inventive step", don't require an inventor per say, nor that such an inventor, if even required, would be legal person. The Court concluded that, for there to be an inventive step, a legal person isn't required as the inventor at all, even though the Act does refer to "mental acts" and "thoughts".

The Court then moved onto discussing the various dictionary definitions for what an "inventor" is. This was quickly dismissed as a grounds to limiting inventors to legal persons, as the Court noted that the definitions, as set out, have moved on from the historical meanings given to them and can't be limited in the same way. 

The next issue was who the patent would be granted to under s. 15 of the Act (but focusing on still who could be classed as an "inventor"). The section includes four different classes of person to whom a patent can be granted. 

The first is if the inventor is a person. The Court quickly determined that, as DABUS is not a person that the section won't apply in this instance, but also discussed that this does not demonstrate that the concept of a "person" would be different to that of an "inventor". An AI system could indeed be the inventor, but not able to be granted a patent as they don't fulfill the requirements of s. 15. 

The second one is a person who would, on the grant of a patent for the invention, be entitled to have the patent assigned to them. This will be discussed in more detail following the other classes. 

The third one is a person who derives title to the invention from the inventor or a person mentioned in the second class. Again, this will be discussed further in the context of the second class. 

Finally, the fourth one is a person who is the legal representative of a deceased person in one of the earlier named classes, which, unsurprisingly, the Court determined to not apply here.

Returning to the question of the second and third classes, the Court first highlighted that Mr Thaler could indeed fall under the second class as the programmer and operator of DABUS, through which he could acquire title in any inventions that may be granted patents over. The title in the patent flows through to Mr Thaler automatically, so wouldn't require the assignment of any rights by the inventor (here DABUS) to Mr Thaler. Additionally, the Court determined that s. 15 doesn't require an inventor at all, but only requires that an applicant is entitled to have a patent assigned to them. 

Also, Mr Thaler, according to the Court, would fall under the third class as he, on the face of it, he has derived title to the invention from DABUS. As the AI system cannot legally assign any inventions to Mr Thaler, however, the language of s. 15 does allow for one to derive rights in an invention even outside of legal assignment of those rights. All of Mr Thaler's rights in any invention become his by virtue of his ownership and operation of the inventor, DABUS. 

The Court succinctly summarised the matter as "generally, on a fair reading of ss. 15(1)(b) and 15(1)(c), a patent can be granted to a legal person for an invention with an artificial intelligence system or device as the inventor".

Ultimately what the case focused on is whether a valid patent application has been made, rather than who will own any patent that might be granted in the future. 

What the Court determined was that "...an inventor as recognised under the Act can be an artificial intelligence system or device. But such a non-human inventor can neither be an applicant for a patent nor a grantee of a patent". This still leaves the ownership of a patent in the air, but, focusing on what was discussed by the Court, it is more than likely that ownership in any AI inventions would automatically pass to the owner and operator of that AI system. 

The Australian Court's approach to this question has hugely departed from the viewpoints of that of the US, UK and the EU, where AI systems have been rejected as potential inventors. It will be very interesting to see the law change and evolve in this in the years to come, in particular any decisions on the granting of a patent to the owner of an AI system, but so far at least Australia seems to be on the vanguard of allowing for AI systems to potentially push the envelope on innovation and to protect those innovations in the process.