Kirk Hartung is a member of the Mechanical Patent Practice Group at McKee, Voorhees & Sease, PLC.
For more information or to contact Kirk, please visit his Firm Profile Page.
The U.S. Department of Justice is encouraging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari to American Axle to clarify U.S. patent eligibility law. Thus, it appears that the chances are better than ever for this issue to get some much-needed attention…. After more than one year of waiting, the Justice Department filed their amicus brief on May 24, 2022. The Solicitor unequivocally stated that the Federal Circuit’s holding that the ‘911 claims are patent ineligible “is incorrect,” and that the appellate decision reflects “substantial uncertainty about the proper application of Section 101.” The Solicitor also noted that the Alice two-part test for patent eligibility enunciated by the Supreme Court in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. 208 (2014), has produced confusion in lower courts, and has “fractured” the Federal Circuit. (See Solicitor’s brief at page 19). The Solicitor also acknowledged the admitted difficulty for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), inventors, businesses, and other patent stakeholders, in applying the Supreme Court’s precedents consistently with regard to patent eligibility under Section 101. The Solicitor urged that the Section 101 inquiry be guided by historical practice and judicial precedent. But Supreme Court precedent appears to be irreconcilable.
On April 28, Google published a blog by their general counsel, Halimah DeLaine Prado, about the crisis condition of the U.S. patent system. Prado portrays Google as a strong supporter of the patent system, citing their history in initiatives to spur new inventions and technologies. For example, Google was a key player in 2013 in starting the Open Patent Non-Assertion Pledge (to not sue on open-source software). Google was also instrumental in the beginnings of the License On Transfer network (which helps members who have been sued by “patent trolls”). Google has provided technical support for the Prior Art Archive. Prado notes that Google has 42,000 patents, which she says they license at “fair value,” and sell to grow the portfolios of other companies, all in the interest of small businesses.
On April 13, 2022, the Federal Court of Australia, on appeal, reversed its 2021 decision that DABUS, an artificial intelligence (AI) machine, qualified as an inventor for a patent application under Australian law. DABUS is a computer built, programmed and owned by Dr. Stephen Thaler. Thaler has filed patent applications in several countries around the world for inventions created by DABUS. Each application names DABUS as the sole inventor. Patent offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia determined that the applications were incomplete, since a human inventor was not identified. Thaler appealed each application in the patent offices, all of which continued to rule that an AI machine was not an inventor. On further appeals, courts in the United States and the United Kingdom have agreed with the patent offices and ruled against Thaler. However, in 2021, the Federal Court of Australia issued an opinion by a primary judge, who reversed the Australian Patent Office and held that Australia’s law did not require an inventor to be a natural person.
North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis has raised the possibility of a combined patent, trademark and copyright office so as to improve the federal government’s approach to all aspects of intellectual property. On January 26, the Senator sent a letter to the Chairman and Counsel for the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) to undertake a study into whether there should be a unified, independent Intellectual Property Office. The Administrative Conference is an independent agency that makes procedural recommendations to the federal government. Tillis’ request is premised upon his view that currently there is a fractured approach to intellectual property in our federal government, with multiple IP functions spread across different agencies, leading to conflicting policy agendas and unnecessary bureaucracy. Tillis is the Ranking Member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Intellectual Property.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that plants could be protected with utility patents. J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc., v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. 534 U.S. 124. This landmark decision, originating in the agricultural heartland of Iowa, was the last time the Supreme Court effectively increased patent protection for inventors and patent owners. Most, if not all, of the Supreme Court’s patent rulings in the past two decades have not been favorable to patent owners. Rather, these “recent” decisions have restricted patent rights and made it more difficult to enforce these rights against infringers.
Twenty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that plants could be protected with utility patents. J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc., v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. 534 U.S. 124 (2001). Forty-one years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that living organisms were patentable. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (19080). Before these landmark cases, plants and living matter were not protectable with patents. The rationale of the Supreme Court in J.E.M. and Chakrabarty supports patent protection for inventions by non-humans, i.e., artificial intelligence inventors.
On July 29, 2019, U.S. patent application serial number 16/524,350 was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), with the sole inventor identified as artificial intelligence named “DABUS.” The assignee, Stephen Thaler, acknowledged that the invention was made by the creativity machine, without any human input. The USPTO issued a notice of missing parts, requiring identification of each inventor by name. Thaler then petitioned that the missing parts notice be vacated, which was denied, and Thaler petitioned for reconsideration. The USPTO issued its decision on the reconsideration petition on April 29, 2020, again denying the petition and concluding that the patent laws required a natural person as an inventor. The decision asserts that conception is the touchstone of invention, as the formation in the mind of the inventor of a definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention as it is to be applied in practice. However, this decision is too narrowly focused, and should be reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit if Thaler appeals the USPTO ruling.