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AI systems can’t be granted patents for their creations, only persons can be inventors under current patent law: UK Supreme Court

The ruling came in response to a bid by American technologist Dr Stephen Thaler, who sought to have his AI system, called Dabus, recognized as the inventor of a food container and a flashing light beacon

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that Artificial Intelligence systems can’t be granted patents for their creations, and only persons have the right to secure patents over their inventions. The court upheld a 2019 ruling by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), saying that only a person can be named as an inventor. The decision will likely have a significant impact as the use of AI tools is growing.

The ruling came in response to a bid by American technologist Dr Stephen Thaler, who sought to have his AI system, called Dabus, recognized as the inventor of a food container and a flashing light beacon. He had filed two patent applications in the name of Dabus in 2018. However, the IPO had rejected the applications in 2019. The decision affirmed that only a person can be named as an inventor, and an AI lacks the legal capacity to secure patent rights. 

Dr Stephen Thaler had challenged the IPO decision at the High Court and then the Court of Appeal, and the pleas were rejected by both the courts. Now the Supreme Court has made the same decision. The Intellectual Property Office had said that only “persons” can have patent rights, AI systems can’t have this right, and the courts have agreed with the office.

Thaler had later submitted revised patent applications in his own name, claiming that he was entitled to patents on inventions by Dabus because he had created the AI tool, but this argument was rejected.

The ruling was delivered by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court of the UK, dismissing a plea by Dr Thaler challenging these orders. The apex court concluded that “an inventor must be a person”, and that an AI cannot be named as an inventor to secure patent rights. The judgement does not decide whether Dabus invented the food container and the light, only saying that it does not have patent rights.

The court further said that it is not ruling on the broad question of whether technical advances created by AI-powered tools and machines should be patentable, or whether the meaning of the term “inventor” should be expanded. It only said that under existing patent laws, the “inventor” in a patent application must be a “natural person.” Thus, the court leaves the door open to amend the law.

Dr Thaler, on the other hand, believes that Dabus is a “conscious and sentient form of machine intelligence”. He told BBC that if AI inventions cannot be protected, “many valuable innovations benefitting humanity will become orphaned”.

He had further added, “acts of dishonesty, maybe even criminality will be encouraged. I don’t think society at large wants these things to happen”.

After the court order, his lawyers said that the ruling “establishes that UK patent law is currently wholly unsuitable for protecting inventions generated autonomously by AI machines and as a consequence wholly inadequate in supporting any industry that relies on AI in the development of new technologies”.

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO), has welcomed the court order “and the clarification it gives as to the law as it stands in relation to the patenting of creations of artificial intelligence machines”. However, they added that “the government will nevertheless keep this area of law under review to ensure that the UK patent system supports AI innovation and the use of AI in the UK”.

The IPO further said it recognised “that there are legitimate questions as to how the patent system and indeed intellectual property more broadly should handle AI creations”.

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