Demystifying the Inventorship Rights of an AI System in India

In this age of technological advancement, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken a giant leap from undertaking more straightforward tasks to originating marvellous inventions. Can an AI system be considered an inventor? This question has been beguiling jurisprudence across the globe for a considerable time. However, through the recent decision of Thaler v. Commissioner of Patents, the Australian Federal Court has forced jurisdictions across the world to re-think the inventive capacity and the role of AI in the contemporary ecosystem of innovation.

Through this article, we have tried to determine the implications of the Thaler decision and examine the position of the Indian legislation on the inventorship rights of an AI.

Factual Matrix

Dr. Stephen Thaler designed the Device for Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience (DABUS). DABUS is an artificial intelligence system that pioneered the creation of an optimised beverage container and a flashing light for use in emergency circumstances. In the persistence of such a creation, Dr. Thaler filled patent applications worldwide, including in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“The Deputy Commissioner” rejected Dr. Thaler’s patent application in Australia, which named DABUS as the inventor. The matter was contested and finally, the Federal Court of Australia determined that the AI could be recognised as an inventor under the Australian Patent Act. According to the Court, the patent would be owned by Dr. Thaler, the developer, owner, and controller of DABUS. The Court determined that the legislative intent was to encourage innovation and that nothing in the Patent Act expressly or implicitly forbids AI from being named as an inventor.

Indian Stance: Inventorship Rights of an AI

In India, recently, the Controller General of Patents recorded objections to recognising an AI as an inventor in the matter of patent application numbered 202017019068, citing the provisions under Section 2 and Section 6 of the Patents Act 1970 (“Act”). The term “inventor” has not been defined under the Act. However, Section 6 states that, among other things, a patent application can be filed by any person claiming to be the true and first inventor of an invention.[1]

A bare reading of the provisions indicates that a natural person is distinguished from others. One can also observe that anyone other than a natural person will be unable to claim inventorship. Consequently, a natural person who is true and first to invent, and who contributes his originality, skill, or technical knowledge to the innovation meets the criteria to be acknowledged as an inventor in India.

In the case of V.B. Mohammed Ibrahim v. Alfred Schafranek, AIR 1960 Mysore 173, it was held that a financing partner cannot be an inventor, nor can a corporation be the sole applicant that claims to be an inventor. The Court, through this decision, emphasised that only a natural person (who is neither a financing partner nor a corporation) who genuinely contributes their skill or technical knowledge towards the invention shall qualify to claim inventorship under the Act.

In the light of this judgement, it can be perceived that an AI can also contribute its skill or technical knowledge to an invention and become an inventor. However, a reference to Som Prakash Rekhi vs Union of India & Anr, AIR 1981 SC 212, clarifies the qualification of a legal ‘person’ under Indian law. The Supreme Court observed that ‘personality’ is the sole attribution of a legal person. Such a ‘personality’ is an entity that has the right to sue or can be sued by another entity. An AI is not capable of using such rights, nor can it perform the required duties of any juristic personality independently. For instance, it cannot enter into an agreement or transfer or acquire patent/patent application rights. It would also be impossible for an AI to oppose or revoke a patent application. Hence, an AI falls short of the standards for being deemed an inventor in India.

Furthermore, the legislative intent behind the Indian Patent Act as found in the Ayyangar Committee report of 1959[2] suggests that inventors are mentioned in a patent application as a matter of right. Whether or not the actual deviser has a proprietary claim on the innovation, he has a moral right to be acknowledged as the inventor. This confers reputation and boosts the economic worth of the inventor. The inventor may give up his ownership interest in a particular patent due to a contract/agreement in law, but he retains his moral right.

An examination of legislative purpose and current public policy reveals a desire to protect the rights of the inventor/natural person who creates IP and can use his moral rights. On the other hand, AI cannot be granted moral rights nor appear to enjoy the benefits intended by legislation or public policy. Given this, designating AI as an inventor/co-inventor under current Indian rules seems impossible until explicit revisions are made.

Role of AI and Economic Growth in India

The Parliamentary Standing Committee “(“Committee“”) constituted under the Dept. of Commerce, analysed the current landscape of the IPR regime in India and observed its contribution to promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the country in its report titled “Report 161: Review of the Intellectual Property Rights Regime in India” presented in the Rajya Sabha on  July 23rd, 2021. In particular, it examined the challenges that exist in the current legislative structure including the inventorship rights of an AI.

The Committee acknowledged the relevance and utility of AI-based cutting edge technology and machine learning, particularly in current times, significantly affected by the pandemic, in which digital technology proved to be instrumental in responding to the global crisis. Further, the Committee placed reliance on a report released by Accenture titled “How AI Boosts Industry Profits and Innovation” which estimated AI to inject US $ 957 Billion into the Indian Economy by 2035, if used optimally, to understand further the impact and role of AI and technology in the contemporary landscape and its relationship with Intellectual Property. 

Therefore, the Committee recommended a review of the relevant provisions of the Indian Patents Act, 1970 [Section 3(k)] and the Copyrights Act, 1957 on a priority basis to afford inventorship rights to AI in India. The Report also stated that “The Committee recommends the Department that the approach in linking the mathematical methods or algorithms to a tangible technical device or a practical application should be adopted in India for facilitating their patents as being done in the EU and U.S. Hence, the conversion of mathematical methods and algorithms to a process in this way would make it easier to protect them as patents“. Thereby including algorithms and mathematical processes under the ambit of patent law.

The Committee concluded that the legislative framework amendments would protect the works of an AI (either autonomously or with assistance/inputs from a human), incentivize pioneering inventions and R&D in the country, and maintain an enabling ecosystem for the protection of human intelligence innovations. The Committee maintained that the embargo placed on the inventorship rights of an AI would dissuade significant investments in the sector since such AI induced innovations would not be protected in the country.

Conclusion:  A Way Forward for Inventorship Rights of an AI System 

The decision would have a favourable impact on the holder of an AI. However, commentators have expressed concerns regarding the difficulties that may arise due to the extending of patent protection to AI-generated concepts, such as:

  • Impact on the Copyright law: A result of such a decision may lead the courts to re-examine the subject of AI authorship and regard AI as a creator of AI-generated works, which will open a Pandora’s box of judicial conflicts.[3]
  • It could potentially raise the bar for innovation or fundamentally alter the definition of a ‘person skilled in the art,’ making it more difficult for human innovators to obtain patent protection.
  • Accepting inventorship to include AI systems would elevate AI to the status of a legal person, allowing it to hold and exercise property rights.
  • It raises concerns about who has the right to use or own the AI-created product. As the AI system is not a legal body, it cannot enter into agreements allowing it to transfer its inventorship rights.

The ability of an AI to be an inventor under patent law will be determined by the specific language in each jurisdiction’s patent laws. To explicitly incorporate and recognise AI-generated ideas, legislative changes and amendments may be required in nations where plain statutory wording needs an inventor to be a natural person. In places where the statutory language is less explicit, such as Australia, the courts may have additional freedom to consider purposeful statutory interpretation and policy considerations.[4] We anticipate that all IP offices adopt a unified approach to successfully address the emerging difficulties posed by inventions by AI.

References: 

[1] Section 6, the Patents Act, 1970.

[2] Shri Justice N. Rajagopala Ayyangar, Report on the revision of the patents law, 1989.

[3] Rita Matulionyte, Australian court says that AI can be an inventor: what does it mean for authors? Kluwer Copyright Blog (September 2021).

[4] Lam Rui Rong, Can Artificial Intelligence Be an Inventor Under Patent Law? Australian Federal Court Says ‘Yes’ but U.S. District Judge Says ‘No’, SKRINE (September 2021).

Image Credits: Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

The ability of an AI to be an inventor under patent law will be determined by the specific language in each jurisdiction’s patent laws. To explicitly incorporate and recognise AI-generated ideas, legislative changes and amendments may be required in nations where plain statutory wording needs an inventor to be a natural person. In places where the statutory language is less explicit, such as Australia, the courts may have additional freedom to consider purposeful statutory interpretation and policy considerations.

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