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The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled that a machine cannot be named on a patent as the inventor of new products or ideas, in a landmark decision that tackles the issue of who — or what — can claim credit for innovative creations.
The country’s highest court unanimously rejected a challenge, which has been working its way through the courts since 2018, that would have seen artificial intelligence tools designated as inventors. Wednesday’s decision puts an end to the case in the UK.
The case goes to the heart of questions about what rights and protections machines deserve. Those questions have grown increasingly complex as a result of rapid developments in the technology this year, which have included AI matching or outperforming humans on a range of tasks.
The advances are challenging existing legal frameworks in the UK and elsewhere, designed to strictly uphold the rights of human inventors.
Handing down the Supreme Court’s judgment on Wednesday, Lord Kitchin said: “We conclude that an ‘inventor’ must be a natural person. Only a person can devise an invention.”
The case stems from patent applications submitted in 2018 by AI expert Stephen Thaler, on behalf of Dabus, a neural network which he had built. Dabus, which stands for “device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience”, has designed a malleable food container and a flashing light.
Elsewhere, AI is responsible for pushing the frontier of a number of fields, including drug discovery and product design.
Thaler has argued that Dabus should be named as an inventor and that he in turn should be able to receive a patent because he is the machine’s owner. That argument runs counter to the UK Patents Act 1977, which defines inventors in a more limited way as being “natural persons”.
The UK Intellectual Property Office rejected Thaler’s claim that Dabus was the inventor of the product because it is not a person. That decision was legally challenged by Thaler but was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2021 on the basis that “only a person can have rights. A machine cannot.”
On Wednesday, Lord Kitchin agreed that “this is the only reasonable interpretation of the relevant portion of the Act”.
The decision is a setback for Thaler and collaborators who have made similar arguments to patent offices around the world. In April, members of the US Supreme Court unanimously refused to hear Thaler’s case, leaving in place lower court rulings that state only “natural persons” can be awarded patents.
Elsewhere, however, the group has made progress. In South Africa, Dabus has been listed as the inventor on a patent and Australia’s Federal Court has ruled that Dabus can also be an inventor.
Lord Kitchin retired from the Supreme Court in September but returned to hand down the judgment in a case that was heard earlier in the year.