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Are machines inventors? The AI and intellectual property debate

Posted by Grace Townsley

February 14, 2022    |     4-minute read (727 words)

If artificial intelligence invents something, who owns the intellectual property rights to it? That question has sparked a worldwide debate. And the answer will have a significant impact on the future of AI. 

The debate starts with DABUS

Computer scientist Stephen Thaler invented an AI “creativity machine.” He called it DABUS – Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience. DABUS soon began inventing things, including a food storage container and a light beacon. When Thaler went to file a patent for these novel inventions, he listed DABUS as the inventor on the patent applications. That’s where the debate started.

Who is an inventor?

In the United States, the clear language of the U.S. Patent Act says an inventor has to be an “individual.” In common language, individual means a natural human. Thaler’s two patent applications were denied because he refused to list anyone other than his DABUS AI machine as the sole inventor.

Thaler appealed when the patent office rejected DABUS’ patent. In fall of 2021, that appeal was brought up in the federal district court. They soon issued the first official U.S. decision on AI’s intellectual property rights and right to patent. Their decision was a resounding no. 

Thaler continued applying around the world on behalf of DABUS for patents for the food container and light beacon. To date, he’s filed patents in Canada, China, Europe, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, the UK and the U.S. So far, DABUS has been granted patents in South Africa and Australia. 

Why give AI the credit?

Many have wondered, why is it so important to give an AI system the credit for a patent? The AI machine was invented by someone, so shouldn’t that machine’s inventor receive credit for the machine’s patents? That’s what many courts who have reviewed Thaler’s case have found. 

Thaler continues to push for DABUS to be recognized as the sole inventor because he believes it protects the strength of patent law. If humans can take credit for their computer’s inventions, soon they may find new ways to take credit for one another’s intellect too. He believes in the strictest application of patent law. And while the AI machine may get credit for inventing, Thaler maintains that the AI’s owner should also be the patent’s owner. By distinguishing between these two roles (inventor and patent owner), the AI machine gets credit for its invention and the AI owner has controlling rights over the invention. 

What does this mean for the future of Artificial Intelligence and Intellectual Property? 

Over the next few years, Thaler’s case will continue to be heard around the world. The decisions made by these courts can have a massive impact on the future of AI inventorship. 

One potential consequence of granting DABUS the right to invent and patent its own inventions is that this decision could open the floodgates of AI inventing. As more AI systems enter the patent scene, they theoretically could invent thousands of speculative ideas and have the right to sue anyone who accidentally stumbles across the same idea in the future. The heart of patent law is to encourage and protect innovation, not to patent thousands of speculative ideas just for inventing’s sake. Those against AI being given the rights of an inventor say this would only worsen the power of the tech elite – people who already have an inventing advantage and use that to profit off of smaller inventors who unintentionally infringe. 

Further, if AI is given the right to inventorship, what would happen if that AI system infringed on another inventor’s patent? How could inventors be protected when AI faces no consequences for infringement? 

On the other hand, AI is already used to invent in the pharmaceutical industry. While humans still contribute significantly to these inventions, in the future, AI has the potential to become the sole inventor of the most effective and safe treatment options. Without the rights to inventorship, the patents on these and future life-saving medications could be called into question. 

The field of artificial intelligence and intellectual property rights is still filled with obstacles and questions. In the coming years we’ll begin to see just how much autonomy AI is granted, and how those rights will shape the future of innovation. 

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