Humans Only: AI Cannot be Patent Inventor, Fed. Cir. Rules

A panel of Federal Circuit Court of Appeals judges opined on whether an artificial intelligence (AI) software system can be an “inventor” under the Patent Act in a decision issued last Friday. Finding in the negative, the court said that “individuals,” and, therefore, “inventors,” are unequivocally natural persons based on the law’s plain meaning.

The case arrived at the Federal Circuit after a series of appeals stemming from plaintiff Stephen Thaler’s bid to patent two inventions ostensibly developed by his AI system, “Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Case Unified Science,” or “DABUS,” described as a collection of source code and a software program.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the applications as incomplete owing to the fact that they failed to list any human as an inventor. Thaler appealed the decision administratively then to the Eastern District of Virginia, which agreed with the PTO and granted it summary judgment.  

Last week’s 11-page opinion noted that “[t]his is a case in which the question of statutory interpretation begins and ends with the plain meaning of the text.” The panel said that while the Patent Act does not define “individual,” defining it as “human being” finds support in Supreme Court and Federal Circuit precedent and everyday parlance.

Further, the opinion found that there is no indication that Congress intended to deviate from the default meaning in crafting the Patent Act, and to the contrary, “the rest of the Patent Act supports the conclusion that ‘individual’ in the Act refers to human beings.”

As an aside, the panel mentioned that it did not decide whether an AI system can form beliefs, noting that “nothing in our record shows that one can, as reflected in the fact that Thaler submitted the requisite statements himself, purportedly on DABUS’ behalf.”

Thaler is represented by Brown, Neri, Smith & Khan LLP and the PTO by the Department of Justice.