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Rage against the Machine: Inventors Must Be Human

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that an artificial intelligence (AI) software system cannot be listed as an inventor on a patent application because the Patent Act requires an “inventor” to be a natural person. Thaler v. Vidal, Case No. 21-2347 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 5, 2022) (Moore, Taranto, Stark, JJ.)

Stephen Thaler develops and runs AI systems that generate patentable inventions, including a system that he calls his “Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Science” (DABUS). In 2019, Thaler sought patent protection for two of DABUS’s putative inventions by filing patent applications with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO). Thaler listed DABUS as the sole inventor on both applications. The PTO found that the patent applications lacked valid inventorship and sent a Notice of Missing Parts requesting that Thaler identify a valid inventor. Thaler petitioned the director to vacate the notices. The PTO denied the petitions, explaining that a machine does not qualify as an inventor and that inventors on patent applications must be natural persons. Thaler then pursued judicial review in the district court. The district court agreed with the PTO, concluding that an “inventor” under the Patent Act must be an “individual,” and that the plain meaning of “individual” is a natural person. Thaler appealed.

The sole issue on appeal was whether an AI software system can be an “inventor” under the Patent Act. The Federal Circuit started with the statutory language of the Patent Act, finding that it expressly provides that inventors are “individuals.” The Court noted that while the Patent Act does not define “individual,” the Supreme Court has explained that the term “individual” refers to a human being unless there is some indication that Congress intended a different reading. The Federal Circuit also found that this result was consistent with its own precedent, which found that neither corporations nor sovereigns can be inventors; instead only natural persons can be inventors.

The Federal Circuit rejected Thaler’s policy argument that inventions generated by AI should be patentable to encourage innovation and public disclosure. The Court found that these policy arguments were speculative, lacked any basis in the text of the Patent Act, and were contrary to the unambiguous text of the Patent Act. The Court also rejected Thaler’s reliance on the fact that South Africa has granted a patent with DABUS as an inventor, explaining that the South African Patent Office was not interpreting the US Patent Act. The Court concluded that since Congress has determined that only a natural person can be an inventor, AI cannot be an inventor.

Practice Note: The Federal Circuit’s decision comes on the heels of a decision from the US Copyright Office Review Board finding that a work must be created by a human being to obtain a copyright. The Federal Circuit also noted that it was not confronted with the question of whether inventions made by human beings with the assistance of AI are eligible for patent protection.

Munchkin Is Luv-n This Win

Reversing an award of attorney’s fees, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that a district court abused its discretion in making an exceptional-case determination where patent and trademark infringement claims were reasonable. Munchkin, Inc. v. Luv N-Care, LTD., Admar International, Inc., Case No. 19-1454 (Fed. Cir. June 8, 2020) (Chen, J.).

Munchkin sued LNC for trademark infringement, unfair competition, trade dress infringement and patent infringement based on LNC’s no-spill drinking cups. LNC filed a petition for inter partes review (IPR) with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). While the IPR was pending, Munchkin voluntarily dismissed all of its non-patent claims with prejudice. The PTAB subsequently found Munchkin’s patent was unpatentable. After the PTAB’s finding, Munchkin dismissed its patent infringement claim.

LNC filed a motion for attorney’s fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 and 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a), arguing that the trademark and trade dress infringement claims were substantively weak and that Munchkin should have been aware of the weakness of the patent’s validity. The district court agreed that the case was exceptional and granted LNC’s motion. Munchkin appealed.

The Patent Act and Lanham Act allow courts to award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party, but only in exceptional cases. The Federal Circuit reviewed the district court’s award for abuse of discretion under the Ninth Circuit standard for attorney’s fees as set forth in Octane Fitness LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc. (IP Update, Vol. 17, No. 5). The Supreme Court in Octane Fitness held that an exceptional case is “one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (considering both the governing law and the facts of the case) or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.”

The Federal Circuit noted that the district court’s exceptional-case determination rested on issues that were not fully litigated before the court. Addressing the patent infringement claim, the Court first found that the district court’s claim construction ruling favored Munchkin, creating a serious hurdle for LNC’s invalidity challenge. However, to find the case exceptional, the district court dismissed its own Markman construction as merely a non-final interim order. The Court found that was not the right question, and instead, the relevant question was whether Munchkin’s validity position was reasonable—not whether there is a possibility of reconsideration of the claim construction.

LNC argued that Munchkin was unreasonable in maintaining its patent infringement lawsuit once the PTAB instituted the IPR because, based on the statistics, it was more likely than not that the patent would be found invalid. The Federal Circuit disagreed, stating clearly that IPR statistics combined with the merits outcome is not enough. What is required is a “fact-dependent, case-by-case” analysis. The Federal Circuit found nothing unreasonable about Munchkin’s patent infringement claim.

Addressing the trademark claims, the Federal Circuit determined that Munchkin cannot be faulted for litigating a claim it was granted permission to pursue. Since the district court allowed Munchkin to amend its complaint, finding no grounds for prejudice, bad faith [...]

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