The new en banc petition in Thaler v. Vidal offers potential for future development on the law of invention and inventorship.
by Dennis Crouch
Hi, my name is Dennis, I am a natural person, a human being, an individual. But, I also think of myself as a collective–trillions of cells and other biologic matter, only some of which expresses “my” DNA; a host of personalities all housed within a thick skull.
In my view, it is unquestionable that AI regularly contribute to inventive concepts so substantially as to be named joint-inventors alongside their human counterparts, if it were permitted. Many of us are hung-up on the notion that inventorship requires “conception in the mind”–a feat perhaps beyond any computer today. But conception is not a requirement for joint inventorship. Cases like Dana-Farber v. Ono help us understand how it might work. In Dana-Farber case, some of the joint inventors (our AI equivalents) provided data and analysis, but then the actual “conception” was done by a third party after receiving the data inputs. Even though only one of the inventors actually “conceived,” the Federal Circuit held that all three should be listed as inventors because each made substantial contributions that led to the conception. Dana-Farber Cancer Inst., Inc. v. Ono Pharm. Co., Ltd., 964 F.3d 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2020). See Toshiko Takenaka, Unravelling Inventorship, 21 Chi.-Kent J. Intell. Prop. 71 (2022).
The key legal justification for excluding AI is the traditional human-only rule of inventorship. Although the Patent Act does not expressly declare “inventors-must-be-humans” or “no-robots,” since 2011 it has stated that inventors are “individuals.”
(f) The term “inventor” means the individual or, if a joint invention, the individuals collectively who invented or discovered the subject matter of the invention.
(g) The terms “joint inventor” and “coinventor” mean any 1 of the individuals who invented or discovered the subject matter of a joint invention.
35 U.S.C. § 100(f)/(g) (2011). Earlier this summer, the Federal Circuit sided against Dr. Stephen Thaler on this issue. Thaler v. Vidal, 43 F.4th 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2022). Thaler has been attempting to seek patent protection for two inventions created by DABUS, his AI computer. Id. In the case, the USPTO admitted (for the purposes of the litigation) that DABUS had conceived of an invention. Thus, the only question on appeal was whether the USPTO acted appropriately in denying patent protection solely based upon the fact that the purported inventor is non-human. Id.
The court sided with USPTO’s no-patent stance. It held that US Patent Laws require listing of an inventor, and that inventor must be a “natural person” — i.e., human being. Although the court cited several statutory justifications for its decision, the key factor came from the definitions found in 35 U.S.C. § 100 that identify inventors as “individuals.” The court concluded that the term “individual” is best interpreted as limited to a human being. Thaler, 43 F.4th at 1211. One quirk of this ruling is that this ‘individual’ definition was added quite recently as part of the 2011 America Invents Act and nothing in the legislative history indicates an intent to use the term to exclude AI from inventorship rolls.
Through his attorney (Professor Ryan Abbott), Thaler has now petitioned the Federal Circuit for en banc rehearing on the following question:
Whether an artificial intelligence can be an inventor for purposes of patent law, which implicates the most fundamental aspects of patent law, namely, the nature of inventorship and therefore whether AI discoveries can be patented.
Thaler en banc petition. The petition makes three key complaints against the petition, which I paraphrase below:
- The panel selectively quoted from dictionaries for its conclusion that individuals are always human. The better definition of individual is a “distinct, indivisible entity”–a definition that would include an AI-inventor. I might ask, if an AI is not an individual, does that mean it is a collective?
- The panel unduly disregard of the Patent Act’s promise of patent rights regardless of “the manner in which the invention was made” and without limiting eligibility scope only to areas contemplated by Congress. See 35 U.S.C. 103 (“Patentability shall not be negated by the manner in which the invention was made”); 35 U.S.C. 101 (“Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process …”); Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U. S. 303 (1980) (that the patent system allows for “inventions in areas not contemplated by Congress.”).
- In the face of evolving technology that redefines the potential of inventorship, the panel failed to interpret the statute “in light of [the] basic purpose” of the Patent Act. Quoting Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151 (1975).
Id. In some ways, Judge Stark’s opinion reads like a district court applying the law handed-down rather than an appellate court with a larger role of considering meaning and importance of ongoing precedent. Perhaps this makes sense, Thaler was the first precedential opinion authored by Judge Stark’s since joining the Court of Appeals earlier in 2022. Judge Stark was previously a district court judge in Delaware for more than a decade.
I have always seen the final sentence of Section 103 as an important declaration of patent law policy that goes beyond simply obviousness doctrine. “Patentability shall not be negated by the manner in which the invention was made.” One particular bit of the Federal Circuit decision that gets in my craw is the court’s statement limiting that provision as only applicable in the obviousness context. In my view, the statement should be applicable in the Thaler analysis as well as in other contexts, such as patent eligibility. I’m planning a subsequent post that will focus more on this issue.
If my calculations are correct, any Amicus Brief in support of Thaler (or Support of Neither Party) would need to be filed by Oct 3 (absent extension).
The absence of a dissent in the original opinion makes the odds of overturning the panel decision quite low–Thaler would need seven of the remaining nine active judges (assuming that none of the original three change their minds). But, Thaler may still appreciate an outcome where one or two judges offer some additional commentary that would then serve as fodder for the upcoming petition for writ of certiorari.