AI systems cannot patent inventions, the US Federal Circuit Court confirms

The US Federal Circuit Court has confirmed that AI systems cannot patent inventions because they are not human.

The ruling is the latest setback in a series of quixotic legal battles by computer scientist Stephen Thaler to copyright and patent the output of various AI software tools he has created.

In 2019, Thaler failed to copyright an image on behalf of an AI system he called the Creativity Machine, with this decision upheld on appeal by the US Copyright Office in 2022. In a parallel case, the US Patent Office ruled in 2020 that Thaler’s AI system DABUS could not be a legal inventor because it was not a “natural person”, with this decision subsequently upheld by a judge in 2021. Now the Federal Circuit Court has again upheld this decision.

Judge Leonard P. Stark writes in the court’s opinion that at first glance one might think that a resolution of this case would require “an abstract inquiry into the nature of the invention or rights, if any, to AI systems.” But, says Stark, such “metaphysical matters” can be avoided by simply parsing the language of the statue in question: the Patent Act.

The Patents Act clearly states that only people can hold patents, says Stark. The law refers to patent holders as “individuals”, a term which the Supreme Court has held “usually means a human being, a person” (according to “how we use the word in everyday speech”); and uses personal pronouns—”himself” and “himself”—throughout, rather than terms like “self,” which Stark says “would allow non-human inventors” in a reading.

“Statutes are often open to multiple reasonable readings. Not so here,” writes Stark. “This is a case where the question of statutory interpretation begins and ends with the plain meaning of the text… [T]there is no ambiguity here: the Patent Act requires that inventors must be natural persons; that is, people. “

The ruling confirms the status quo for AI patent law in the US, and strengthens what is slowly consolidating as international legal opinion. Both the EU Patent Office and the Australian High Court have handed down similar decisions in recent years (although a federal court in Australia initially ruled in favor of AI patents).

In accordance Bloomberg LawThaler plans to appeal the circuit court’s ruling, with his attorney, Ryan Abbott of Brown, Neri, Smith & Khan LLP, criticizing the court’s “narrow and textual approach” to patent law.

Abbott told the publication: “It ignores the intent of the patent law and the result that AI-generated inventions are now unpatentable in the United States. That’s a result with real negative social consequences.”

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