PTO on AI Inventorship: Will the Real Natural Human Inventors Please Stand Up?

On February 13, 2024, the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) issued a notice with examination guidance and request for comment regarding inventorship in applications involving artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted inventions. The guidance reinforces the patentability of AI-assisted inventions and sets forth preliminary guidelines for determining inventorship with a focus on human contributions in this process.

The PTO released the guidance in response to President Biden’s Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence (October 30, 2023). The executive order mandated that the PTO, within 120 days, present “guidance to USPTO patent examiners and applicants addressing inventorship and the use of AI, including generative AI, in the inventive process, including illustrative examples in which AI systems play different roles in inventive processes and how, in each example, inventorship issues ought to be analyzed.”

As in any inventorship determination for non-AI-generated inventions, “AI-assisted inventions must name the natural person(s) who significantly contributed to the invention as the inventor or joint inventor, even if an AI system may have been instrumental in the creation of the claimed invention.” As is the case for all inventions, the threshold question for inventorship in AI-assisted inventions is who made a “significant contribution” to the conception of at least one claim of the patent. For this evaluation, the Pannu factors (Federal Circuit 1998, Pannu v. Iolab Corp.) for inventorship should be considered.

With specific reference to AI-assisted inventions, the notice provides a non-exhaustive list of principles based on the Pannu factors for AI inventorship determinations:

  • Use of AI systems is not a barrier to inventorship. Use of an AI system does not negate a natural person making a significant contribution to an AI-assisted invention. To be an inventor, a natural person must have significantly contributed to each claim in a patent application or patent.
  • Recognizing a problem or obtaining a solution may be insufficient. The mere recognition of a problem or having a general goal or plan to pursue or obtain a solution from the AI input does not rise to the level of conception. The way in which a person constructs a prompt in view of the problem for eliciting a particular solution may be important for qualifying that person as an inventor.
  • Reduction to practice alone is insufficient. Reducing an invention to practice alone does not constitute a “significant contribution,” nor does the mere recognition and appreciation of the AI system output rise to the level of inventorship, especially where the output would be apparent to those of ordinary skill. By contrast, a significant contribution may exist where a person makes a significant contribution to the output or conducts a successful experiment from the output to create an invention.
  • Developing an essential building block of an AI system may be sufficient. A person developing an essential building block of an AI system to address a specific problem, where the building block is instrumental in eliciting a solution from the output, may be a proper inventor.
  • “Intellectual domination” over [...]

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Uncle Sam Can March In: Government Licenses Under Bayh-Dole Aren’t Subject to “Strict Timing Requirements”

In an appeal from the US Court of Federal Claims, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a determination that 35 U.S.C. § 202(c)(4), a provision of the Bayh-Dole Act, operates to provide a license to the government for federally funded research based on work that occurred prior to the effective date of a funding agreement. University of South Fl. Board of Trustees v. United States, Case No. 22-2248 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 9, 2024) (Reyna, Taranto, Stoll, JJ.)

University of South Florida (USF) owns a now-expired patent directed to transgenic mice expressing a certain gene causing an accelerated pathology for Alzheimer’s disease. The patent’s subject matter was conceived while the two named inventors worked at USF, but both inventors transitioned their work to the Mayo Clinic prior to the first actual reduction to practice of the claimed invention. The mice remained at USF, under the care of USF professors, while the named inventors continued to oversee the project from Mayo. The first actual reduction to practice occurred while the inventors were at Mayo.

While the named inventors were still at USF, one inventor submitted a grant application to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH awarded the inventors (while they were still at USF) a grant covering the mouse project. After the inventors moved to Mayo but prior to the award grant, the designated grantee changed from USF to Mayo. In November 1997, Mayo and USF entered into a subcontract whereby Mayo would pay USF for grant-covered work occurring at USF.

USF sued the United States alleging infringement of the mouse patent by a third party with the government’s authorization and consent. The third party was producing and using mice covered by the patent for the government. The US asserted a license defense under the Bayh-Dole Act, which gives the government a license to practice certain federally funded inventions. The Claims Court granted judgment to the US under its license defense, determining that USF operated pursuant to an implied contract with Mayo based on the understanding that Mayo would use funding from the NIH grant to pay USF for work done there. The Claims Court therefore determined that USF was a contactor with an implied subcontract that was a funding agreement under Bayh-Dole. Since the invention was therefore invented by a government contractor operating under a funding agreement, it was a “subject invention” that was first actually reduced to practice under a government contract. Therefore, under Bayh-Dole, the government was entitled to a license. USF appealed, arguing that the invention was not a “subject invention” within the meaning of § 202(c)(4) of Bayh-Dole.

USF argued that to trigger § 202(c)(4), a funding agreement must be in place at the time of the relevant work and there was no implied agreement in April 1997, the time the work that led to the reduction to practice commenced. The Federal Circuit determined that the November 1997 subcontract was adequate to support entitlement to claim a government license under § [...]

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No Home Away From Home: Federal Circuit Confirms PTO Domicile Requirements

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit confirmed the US Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) refusal to register a trademark based on the applicant’s failure to comply with the domicile address requirement of 37 C.F.R. §§ 2.32(a)(2) and 2.189. In re Chestek PLLC, Case No. 22-1843 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 13. 2024) (Lourie, Chen, Stoll, JJ.)

Chestek included only a PO box for its domicile address in its trademark application. The PTO found this information noncompliant with the domicile address rule, which requires trademark applicants to either have a domicile within the United States or be represented by US counsel. The PTO implemented the requirement in 2019 following a notice-and-comment period. Chestek appealed the PTO’s refusal to register based on the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and challenged the processes surrounding implementation of the domicile address requirement.

Chestek first argued that the requirement was improperly instituted because the PTO failed to comply with the notice-and-comment rulemaking requirement under 5 U.S.C. § 533 by failing to provide notice of the domicile address requirement adopted in the final rule. However, the Federal Circuit held that the formalities of the notice-and-comment were not required under § 533(b)(A) because the rule was procedural, not substantive (i.e., effecting a change in existing law or policy that affects individual rights and obligations). As the Court explained, the rule did not affect the substantive trademark standards used during examination to evaluate applications but was simply an applicant information requirement.

Chestek next argued that the domicile address requirement was arbitrary and capricious because in implementing the final rule, the PTO “offered an insufficient justification for the domicile address requirement” and failed to consider important repercussions of the requirement, such as its effects on privacy. The Federal Circuit rebuffed that argument, explaining that the domicile requirement and the explanations given for it (determining whether the US attorney requirement applied) were “at least reasonably discernable.” The Court stated that as long as an agency does not give “almost no reason at all” for a new policy, the change is sufficiently justified and not arbitrary or capricious. The Court also noted that the APA does not require an agency to consider and respond to every impact of a proposed policy change.




Copyrightability? Think Outside the Checkbox

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment that a customer intake form was not copyrightable because it lacked requisite originality. Ronald Ragan, Jr. v. Berkshire Hathaway Automotive, Inc., Case No. 22-3355 (8th Cir. Feb. 2, 2024) (Grasz, Smith, Gruender, JJ.)

Ronald Ragan claimed that he owned the Guest Sheet, a form he designed to aid car dealerships in their sales processes. The form, registered with the US Copyright Office in 1999, included various questions, prompts, headings, fill-in-the-blank lines and checkboxes. Ragan initially accused an auto dealership of copying and using the Guest Sheet. However, subsequent legal action regarding the dealership’s alleged infringement was dismissed because of jurisdictional issues.

Five years later, Berkshire Hathaway Automotive acquired the dealership. Berkshire Hathaway continued to use the Guest Sheet post-acquisition despite Ragan’s objections. Allegedly, Berkshire Hathaway agreed to modify the form but continued to use it, prompting Ragan to initiate a copyright infringement lawsuit. Berkshire Hathaway moved for judgment on the pleadings, contending that the Guest Sheet was not copyrightable. After the district court granted the motion, Ragan appealed.

Ragan argued that the district court erroneously found the Guest Sheet uncopyrightable. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, stating that the Guest Sheet lacked the necessary originality to qualify for copyright protection. Despite Ragan’s contentions regarding the form’s sophistication distilled from years of experience, the Court found it to be a basic customer intake sheet with minimal creativity, consisting of simple questions, prompts and checkboxes and totaling fewer than 100 words. Citing and quoting from the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Feist Publ’ns. v. Rural Tel. Serv., the Eighth Circuit explained that to be copyrightable, a work must possess a minimal degree of originality: “To meet this [originality] requirement, a work must be ‘independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and . . . possess[] at least some minimal degree of creativity.’”

The Eighth Circuit rejected Ragan’s argument that the selection and arrangement of words on the Guest Sheet constituted sufficient originality, emphasizing the need for creativity beyond mere selection. The Court also noted that the Guest Sheet primarily served as a tool for collecting information rather than conveying substantial content, further diminishing its claim to copyright protection.

Ragan also argued that the Guest Sheet’s copyright registration certificate afforded it a presumption of validity. However, the Eighth Circuit rebuffed this argument noting that Berkshire’s challenge to Guest Sheet’s copyrightability could be based solely on examination of the form itself, notwithstanding the presumption of validity attendant to the registration certificate.

Practice Note: This decision highlights the importance of demonstrating substantial creativity in crafting documents for potential copyright protection and emphasizes that mere selection and arrangement of words may not suffice. Legal proceedings can hinge on the functionality and purpose of a document, as evidenced by the court’s distinction between information-conveying and information-capturing forms in determining copyrightability.




Trademark Trial & Appeal Board Gets a DuPont 101 Lesson

Addressing errors in the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board’s likelihood of confusion analysis in a cancellation action, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that the Board erred by failing to give sufficient weight to the first DuPont factor (similarity of the marks) and failing to consider the relevant evidence for the third (similarity of established trade channels). Naterra International, Inc. v. Samah Bensalem, Case No. 22-1872 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 15, 2024) (Moore, Stoll, Cunningham, JJ.)

In 2020, Naterra International filed a petition to cancel Samah Bensalem’s registration for BABIES’ MAGIC TEA for use in connection with “medicated tea for babies that treats colic and gas and helps babies sleep better” based on a likelihood of confusion with Naterra’s multiple registrations for BABY MAGIC for use in connection with infant toiletry products such as lotion and baby shampoo. The Board denied Naterra’s petition, finding that Naterra failed to prove a likelihood of confusion. The Board found that while the first DuPont likelihood of confusion factor (similarity of the marks) weighed in favor of a likelihood of confusion, factors two (similarity of the goods) and three (similarity of established trade channels) did not, and Naterra’s BABY MAGIC mark “fell somewhere in the middle” for factor five (fame of the prior mark). The Board found that factors four (conditions of purchasing), six (number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods), eight (length of time and conditions of concurrent use without evidence of actual confusion), 10 (market interface between applicant and owner of a prior mark) and 12 (extent of potential confusion) were neutral. Naterra appealed.

Naterra argued “that substantial evidence does not support the Board’s finding that the similarity and nature of the goods (DuPont factor two) and trade channels (DuPont factor three) disfavor a likelihood of confusion,” and that the Board did not properly weigh the first (similarity of the marks) and fifth (fame of the prior mark) DuPont factors.

DuPont Factor Two – Relatedness of the Goods

The Board rejected Naterra’s expert testimony that other so-called “umbrella” baby brands offered both infant skincare products and ingestible products, calling it “unsupported by underlying evidence.” The Federal Circuit disagreed, stating that “testimony that third-party companies sell both types of goods is pertinent to the relatedness of the goods.” Nonetheless, because the Court could not determine whether the Board rejected the expert testimony for other reasons, it remanded the case for further consideration and explanation of its analysis on this point.

DuPont Factor Three – Similarity of Trade Channels

The Board found that the third factor weighed against a likelihood of confusion, stating that it lacked the “persuasive evidence” necessary to “conclude that the trade channels are the same.” The Federal Circuit found that the Board erred by not addressing relevant evidence, namely Bensalem’s admission that the parties’ goods were sold in similar trade channels. The Court also noted that the Board “did not identify in its decision any evidence showing a lack of [...]

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