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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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Federal Circuit Sinks Another Attempt to Use PTO Guidance

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found claims directed to methods of fishing to be patent ineligible, affirming a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) decision that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of selecting a fishing hook based on observed water conditions. In re: Christopher John Rudy, Case No. 19-2301 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 24, 2020) (Prost, CJ).

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