As I recently (tentatively) predicted, on Friday 30 July 2021 Justice Beach in the Federal Court of Australia handed down a judgment giving Australia the dubious honour of becoming the first country in the world to legally recognise a non-human as a valid inventor on a patent application: Thaler v Commissioner of Patents  FCA 879. I would suggest that the remarkable speed with which this unnecessarily lengthy (228 paragraphs) decision was rendered, after being heard on 2 July 2021, may reflect the judge’s enthusiasm for issuing such a ground-breaking ruling. Unfortunately, I do not share that enthusiasm, and I am confident that there are many others who are equally uncomfortable with the outcome. My hope is that this includes officials within IP Australia and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and that the decision will be duly appealed to a Full Bench of the court. It is, in my view, deeply regrettable that the Commissioner of Patents did not put on a stronger defence in the first instance because, even though an appeal was probably inevitable either way, the worldwide publicity that this decision is now generating is not necessarily beneficial for Australia.
The judge summarised his reasoning (at ) that:
…in my view an artificial intelligence system can be an inventor for the purposes of the Act. First, an inventor is an agent noun; an agent can be a person or thing that invents. Second, so to hold reflects the reality in terms of many otherwise patentable inventions where it cannot sensibly be said that a human is the inventor. Third, nothing in the Act dictates the contrary conclusion.
The patent system faces many challenges, but right now a need to grant more patents in a wider range of circumstances in not one of them. We are in the grip of a global pandemic, and very serious questions are being asked about whether patents deliver a net benefit to the people of the world by incentivising the development of new vaccines and treatments, or whether they have the detrimental effect of denying affordable access to vital care and protection in poor and developing nations. While I am firmly in the former camp, it only becomes harder to defend the patent system when opponents see the law expanding access to allow inventions generated by machines – potentially including those owned and controlled by giant corporations.
The standing and reputation of Australia and our patent laws are also at risk. The country is already the target of criticism – rightly or wrongly – for declining to support calls for a waiver of IP provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS). The Federal Court’s decision in Thaler is receiving global attention, and not all of it is positive. One tweet (in Spanish) compares Australia’s patent-friendly approach unfavourably with the infamous incident of an early innovation patent being granted for a ‘circular transportation facilitation device’, a.k.a. the wheel.
Just because patents are (or, at least, can be) good, it does not follow that more patents, generated in more ways, by more entities, must be better. Australia should not think that we will necessarily come across as a socially and technologically progressive nation by ‘leading the way’ on allowing patents to be granted for inventions generated by non-humans. On the contrary, we risk being left out on our own and looking like chumps. The United States will not follow our lead – there are Constitutional, statutory and procedural barriers to permitting US patent applications naming non-human inventors. The European Patent Office will not follow in the foreseeable future – it has already established its position via an academic study and discussions with member states of the European Patent Convention. The UK has so far rejected any expansion of inventorship to non-humans. And, contrary to recent reports (and the claims of the Artificial Inventor Project’s Ryan Abbott), the recent grant of a patent in South Africa naming DABUS as inventor indicates nothing about that country’s law or position on the issue. As South African patent attorney Pieter Visagie has explained, the application effectively avoided any scrutiny of the legitimacy of the inventor by virtue of being filed via the international (PCT) system.
So what does Australia gain by being the first – and possibly only – country in the world to legally recognise non-human inventors? Nothing, as far as I can see, other than a whole lot of unneeded publicity and global scrutiny of our patent laws. If we are lucky, we will not receive many serious patent applications for inventions generated by machine inventors, and little practical harm will be done. At worst, however, we could become the only country in the world to grant patents on such inventions, mostly filed by foreign applicants, creating exclusive rights that are enforceable only in Australia to the relative detriment of Australian innovators and consumers.