Only 'natural persons' can be recognized as patent inventors, not AI systems, US judge rules

This isn't over says man pushing for neural networks' rights


Updated AI systems cannot be granted patents and will not be recognised as inventors in the eyes of the US law, said a federal judge who decided to uphold a previous ruling by the US Patent and Trademark Office this week.

Stephen Thaler, founder of Imagination Engines, a company in Missouri, applied in 2019 for two US patents describing a food container based on fractal geometry and an emergency light beacon. Instead of putting his own name on the applications, however, Thaler gave all the credit to DABUS, a neural network he built and claimed came up with both creations.

The US Patent and Trademark Office, however, rejected both applications and said only “natural persons” are allowed to be named as an inventor on the patent paperwork. Thaler in response sued Andrei Iancu, who was the director of the patent office at the time, in federal court in eastern Virginia to challenge that decision.

“There is no statute or case that has found an AI-generated invention cannot be patented, or that holds an AI cannot be listed as an inventor,” Thaler’s lawyers argued [PDF] in his lawsuit.

“Rather, any discussion of inventors as natural persons has been based on the assumption that only a person could invent, or to prevent corporate and sovereign inventorship at the expense of a human inventor.”

But Judge Leonie Brinkema disagreed, and sided with the patent office's current director Drew Hirshfeld [PDF], ruling that the law states “individuals” must take an oath to swear they are the inventor on a patent application. These individuals must be natural persons, which computer software is not.

Thaler wants to continue to fight for inventor rights of his machines, primarily to prevent humans from stealing ideas generated by computers and taking all the credit.

“We respectfully disagree with the district court's judgment and plan to appeal the case to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit,” one of his lawyers, Ryan Abbott, a professor of law and health sciences at the University of Surrey, England, told The Register on Friday.

Last month, Thaler scored a win in his crusade when an Australian federal court agreed with him that an artificial-intelligence system can be considered a patent inventor.

“Humans are denying those rights in the first place, being stuck in an age-old paradigm rut in which only wet computers – ie: brains – count," Thaler told El Reg last year prior to suing the US patent office.

"What happens when a highly advanced extraterrestrial civilization visits Earth?

"Does ET deserve the equivalent of human rights? Does he dare file for patent or copyright protection? Then what happens when science achieves the download of consciousness into machines, or silicon prostheses are introduced into the protoplasmic brain? Would the system deny these people human rights? ... Those are mighty big questions.” ®

Updated to add at 2330 UTC, September 5

Australia's Commissioner of Patents Paula Adamson has announced she will appeal the aforementioned federal court decision Down Under.

"The appeal is centred on questions of law and the interpretation of the patents legislation as it currently stands. The commissioner considers that the legislation is incompatible with permitting an AI to be an inventor, and that the issue is one of public importance," stated IP Australia, the nation's intellectual property protection agency, before adding: "The decision to appeal does not represent a policy position by the Australian government on whether AI should or could ever be considered an inventor on a patent application."

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