The Latest on the Robot Inventors

This is an update to my earlier post, The Robot Inventors, and also to topics touched on in The Robot Authors, where I discussed one man’s efforts to get his computer recognized by the USPTO as an inventor. That man, Dr. Stephen Thaler, has launched a global campaign, fought in patent offices around the world, to push the limits of how the law handles machine-made creations.

Here’s a quick recap on the history of the U.S. case so far. Thaler filed two patent applications on behalf of his AI model, DABUS, claiming that DABUS was the sole inventor. The USPTO rejected the applications, saying that an inventor must be a regular human person.

Thaler appealed to the federal courts, first to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where he lost, and then appealed that to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

This just in: He lost there as well. I’m including the full PDF of the decision at the bottom of this post.

The holding is based entirely on interpretation of the patent statutes, stating, “Here, there is no ambiguity: the Patent Act requires that inventors must be natural persons; that is, human beings.” It starts by saying that the term “individual” is ordinarily used to refer to natural persons, and goes on to say that the Patent Act reinforces this by using personal pronouns (“himself” and “herself” rather than “itself”).

One fun part of the analysis is that inventors are required to sign a declaration stating that they believe themselves to be the original inventor. On this point, the court said:

While we do not decide whether an AI system can form beliefs, nothing in our record shows that one can, as reflected in the fact that Thaler submitted the requisite statements himself, purportedly on DABUS’ behalf.

The decision essentially rests on dictionary-diving and statutory analysis, which is by far the safest approach for the court here. There just isn’t enough in the bare language of the statute for Thaler to hold onto. I personally would have liked to see the court explore the topic of whether a machine is capable of performing the act of “conception,” but that’s a couple of steps past whether the machine can be considered to be an “individual.”

Given what we’ve seen of Thaler’s gumption so far, I fully expect him to appeal to the Supreme Court. I doubt it will be granted certiorari, but I’ll be sure to let you know how that progresses.

Here is the court’s decision:

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