Federal Circuit Court Rules AI Can't Hold Patents
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(Photo: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit)
One computer scientist’s artificial intelligence advancements have brought forth a question only this century could Devise: can an AI system that’s created something new be considered an inventor? According to the United States federal circuit court, the answer is no.

Stephen Thaler, the creator of DABUS (“Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience”), made the AI to mimic certain aspects of human brain function. According to Thaler, DABUS used its creative capabilities to independently invent two things: a beverage container and an “enhanced” attention-grabbing flashlight. Thaler and his team, who advocate on behalf of “artificial inventors,” filed for patents for both inventions in multiple countries. If the patents were granted, it would be DABUS that’d hold them—not Thaler.

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As one might expect, Thaler has since faced an uphill battle in court. Though South Africa and Australia have granted the requested patents, the US, United Kingdom, and European Union have largely struggled with Thaler’s insistence that DABUS can be considered an inventor and therefore hold a patent. In 2020, the US Patent Office ruled that DABUS couldn’t legally be considered an inventor because it was not “a natural person. A judge with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia upheld this ruling a year later. Thaler’s team responded by filing a complaint with the federal circuit court, imploring the judge to “set aside” the previous judges’ rulings. But their hopes were dashed on Friday when three judges determined AI incapable of holding US patents.

Stephen Thaler, creator of DABUS. (Photo: Imagination Engines)

If you’re preparing for a long-winded discussion of AI’s potential personhood or the means by which it “invents” things, fear not: according to Judge Leonard P. Stark, such discussions are irrelevant. “At first, it might seem that resolving this issue would involve an abstract inquiry into the nature of invention or the rights, if any, of AI systems,” Stark wrote in the court’s ruling. “In fact, however, we do not need to ponder these metaphysical matters. Instead, our task begins—and ends—with consideration of the applicable definition in the relevant statute.”

The “relevant statute” refers to the Patent Act, which uses the term “individuals” to refer to patent holders. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that “individuals” “ordinarily means a human being, a person” in legal contexts. This leaves virtually no room for interpretation; no matter how much one might insist AI systems could be considered “individuals” outside of the Supreme Court’s definition, it’d be outrageous to say they’re human beings. (We’re knocking on wood here—nothing, it seems, is outside the realm of possibility.)

“Statutes are often open to multiple reasonable readings. Not so here,” Stark wrote. “This is a case in which the question of statutory interpretation begins and ends with the plain meaning of the text…In the Patent Act, “individuals”—and, thus, “inventors”—are unambiguously natural persons.”

Thaler isn’t thrilled about the court’s decision and plans to appeal that, too, according to Bloomberg Law. An appeal would require the federal circuit court—which usually has the final say on these matters—to bump the case to the Supreme Court. It’s unclear at this time whether the Supreme Court will take the case.

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