UK Supreme Court confirms AI systems cannot be patent inventors

UK Supreme Court confirms AI systems cannot be patent inventors

The question of whether artificial intelligence (AI) should be recognised as an inventor under patent law has been a subject of intellectual property experts and legal authorities around the world. In a unanimous ruling, the UK Supreme Court has upheld earlier decisions that AI systems cannot be credited as inventors under current legislation.

Artificial Intelligence

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into our business and personal lives is something that has been transformative over the past decade. As new technologies emerge and quickly evolve, so does the growing demand to protect them. AI technology is reaching a point where it can create solutions that its creators did not directly programme it to do. Owners of such technologies are beginning to seek protection of these AI-created solutions and inventions through ordinary intellectual property channels.  

DABUS – AI Inventor

Historically, machine-learning systems are described as tools which are trained to perform certain tasks. Any invention generated as a result of these tasks would not usually be considered an invention of the machine as the outcome is known in advance.

DABUS, the patented AI system created by Dr. Stephen Thaler, defies the historical understanding of what a machine-learning system is. Dr. Thaler claims that DABUS has conceived inventions independently and autonomously, without human intervention. The machine created a design for a food container and a new kind of light beacon that attracts attention in an emergency.

Patent applications

Dr. Thaler applied to patent the inventions in the US, EU, and UK, listing DABUS as the sole inventor. He requested that the requirement to list a human inventor be broadened to incorporate an AI system or be waived entirely.

In December 2021, Dr. Thaler’s application to the European Patent Office (the EPO) was finally dismissed by the Legal Board of Appeal. In April 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Dr. Thaler’s petition to challenge the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's earlier decision not to grant patents for inventions generated by his artificial intelligence system.

In each case, the reason for the application being rejected was the applicant’s failure to list a human inventor on the paperwork. The USPTO argued that this would ‘contradict the plain reading of the patent statutes that refer to persons and individuals.’ 

UK Supreme Court ruling

Dr. Thaler’s initial UK patent application in 2018 did not state a designated human inventor. In 2019, the UKIPO requested further information, and in response, Dr. Thaler stated that these inventions were created by the AI of a machine called DABUS.

In December 2023, after many years in court, Dr. Thaler finally received a definitive answer from the UK Supreme Court, which held that an inventor must be a person, and that an AI cannot be named as an inventor for the purposes of patent rights.

The Supreme Court established that the term ‘inventor’ within patent law explicitly refers to a natural person and is therefore reserved solely for natural persons, and not machines. Any other interpretation would require an amendment to the Patent Act 1977. Importantly, the ruling does not prevent individuals from employing AI to create an invention. In these circumstances, it is possible for that individual to list themselves as the inventor and apply for the patent.

What does this mean for the patent system?

A decision by the UK Supreme Court in favour of Dr. Thaler would have created substantial practical challenges. It would have contradicted the position in mainland Europe, and caused problems in a patent litigation context – how can one cross-examine a machine?

The UK Supreme Court ruling means that, under current legislation, an AI machine cannot be listed as a sole inventor for a patent in the UK. Nevertheless, this ruling puts the patent regime in an unusual position whereby individuals and businesses using AI to develop inventions will be required to list themselves or their employees as the inventor, even if such individuals did little more than turn on the AI system.

With more and more AI-created solutions and inventions likely in the future, legislators will be faced with the difficult task of incentivising inventors whilst balancing the rights of AI systems and the creators of AI.

If an AI inventor is something to be considered seriously in the UK, Europe and the US, it would require further debate, a re-organisation of the patent system, and changes to patent legislation.

About our expert

Adam Khattak

Adam Khattak

Commercial Solicitor
Adam is a solicitor who advises on a range of commercial and technology matters. 

Our offices

A national law firm

A national law firm

Our commercial lawyers are based in or close to major cities across the UK, providing expert legal advice to clients both locally and nationally.

We mainly work remotely, so we can work with you wherever you are. But we can arrange face-to-face meeting at our offices or a location of your choosing.

Head Office

Floor 5, Cavendish House, 39-41 Waterloo Street, Birmingham, B2 5PP
Regional Spaces

Stirling House, Cambridge Innovation Park, Denny End Road, Waterbeach, Cambridge, CB25 9QE
13th Floor, Piccadilly Plaza, Manchester, M1 4BT
10 Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 5HP
Harwell Innovation Centre, 173 Curie Avenue, Harwell, Oxfordshire, OX11 0QG
1st Floor, Dearing House, 1 Young St, Sheffield, S1 4UP
White Building Studios, 1-4 Cumberland Place, Southampton, SO15 2NP
A national law firm

To access legal support from just £145 per hour arrange your no-obligation initial consultation to discuss your business requirements.

Make an enquiry