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How an invention by AI sparked a debate about intellectual property rights

Posted by Shivali Anand

April 4, 2022    |     4-minute read (792 words)

If artificial intelligence invents something, who owns the product’s intellectual property rights? This esoteric topic has generated a worldwide debate whose outcome could have a profound influence on the development of AI.

The debate begins with DABUS

Stephen Thaler, a computer scientist, developed an AI "creativity machine" called DABUS (Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience). DABUS began creating things as soon as it was made, including a food storage container and a light beacon, among other things. When Thaler proceeded to submit patent applications for these items, he named DABUS as inventor. That's where the debate started.

What is the meaning of an inventor?

The exact text of the United States Patent Act states that an inventor must be an "individual" to be granted a patent. An individual is a term that refers to a natural human being in a common language. None of Thaler's patent applications was approved because he refused to designate anybody other than his DABUS AI computer as the sole inventor on either of his patent applications.

When the patent office denied DABUS' patent, Thaler filed an appeal. It was taken before the Federal District Court in the fall of 2021 and the case was dismissed. That appeal produced the first formal U.S. judgment on AI’s intellectual property rights and patentability. The answer was a solid “no.”

Thaler continued to file patent applications on behalf of DABUS in countries worldwide for the food container and light beacon. So far, he has submitted patent applications in Brazil, Canada, China, India, Israel, Japan, and South Africa, among other countries, in addition to the U.S. DABUS had received patents in South Africa and Australia at the time of publication.

What is the point of giving credit to AI?

Many people have questioned why granting credit for a patent to an AI system is crucial. Someone invented the AI machine; thus, shouldn't the machine's creator be credited for the patents issued in connection with the machine? That's what several courts that have looked into Thaler's case have concluded.

Thaler continues to advocate for DABUS to be acknowledged as the sole inventor because he feels that doing so will maintain the strength of patent law. If humans can claim credit for the innovations of their computers, they may soon discover new ways to claim credit for one another's brilliance as well. He believes that patent law should be applied as strictly as possible. And while the AI machine may be given credit for the invention, Thaler thinks that the AI's owner should also be the patent's owner in terms of responsibility. By differentiating between these two roles (creator and patent owner), the AI machine receives credit for its discovery, but the AI owner retains authority over the invention under the patent.

What does this mean for the future of AI and IP? 

It is expected that Thaler's case will continue to be heard worldwide over the next few years. The judgments made on the topic could have a significant effect on whether patent protection will be internationally available for innovation created by AI.

One possible effect of providing DABUS the authority to produce and protect its own innovations is that such judgments could open the floodgates for AI-driven advancements. In theory, as more and more AI systems enter the patent arena, they may develop thousands of speculative concepts and have the right to sue anybody who accidentally discovers the same idea in the future. In essence, patent law exists to promote and protect an invention rather than patent hundreds of speculative ideas just to develop something new. Those who oppose giving AI the rights of an inventor argue that doing so will only increase the power of the tech elite – people who already have an advantage in inventing and who use that advantage to profit off of smaller inventors who unintentionally infringe on their patents.

Furthermore, if AI is granted the ability to be an inventor, what would happen if an AI system infringed on another inventor's patent? How could creators be safeguarded in a world where AI suffers no repercussions for infringement?

However, in the pharmaceutical sector, AI is already being utilized to innovate. While humans continue to play an essential role in these developments, AI has the potential to become the only creator of the most effective and safe therapeutic alternatives in the future. Patents on existing and future life-saving medications may be put into doubt if inventorship rights are not granted.

AI and intellectual property rights continue to be full of challenges and unanswered problems. During the next several years, we'll be able to observe precisely how much autonomy AI has been allowed and how those rights will impact the future of technological progress.

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