13 January 2018

The Impact of Machine Learning on Patent Law, Part 1: Can a Computer ‘Invent’?

BrainAs a product of millions of years of evolution, the human brain is a remarkable organ.  Recent research indicates that a typical brain comprises somewhere in the vicinity of 80 to 100 billion neurons, and a roughly equal number of non-neuronal cells.  This mass of biological matter is capable of astonishing feats – many of them simultaneously – from enabling us, consciously and unconsciously, to control the behaviour and movement of our bodies, to sensing, comprehending and interacting with the environment around us, to communicating with one another using a variety of languages and symbols, to creating, composing and inventing brand new works of science, technology, and art.  In performing all of these tasks, the brain consumes just 20 watts of power.  By way of comparison, microprocessors at the high end of Intel’s latest Core i7 range consume up to 140 watts.

One relatively recent product of the amazing human brain is the range of technologies often collectively called ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI).  That is the last time I will use this particular phrase without irony in this series of articles – in my view, it is too vague a term, and tends to create an impression that computers are somehow approaching the capacity to operate on-par with human intelligence, which is simply not true.  Nonetheless, such luminaries as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have piped up over the past year or so with their concerns that our machines may soon rise up and render us obsolete or, worse still, destroy us!

In a similar vein, there are some people in the field of intellectual property who are starting to ask questions about whether computers can be ‘creative’ or ‘inventive’ and, if so, whether it should be possible for a computer to be named as an inventor on a patent application – or, conversely, whether some humans should be disentitled from inventorship on the basis that their computers, rather than themselves, were the true inventors.  One academic who has been making a name for himself in this emerging field of study is Professor of Law and Health Sciences at the University of Surrey, Ryan Abbott.  Professor Abbott is the author of, among other works on the topic, ‘I Think, Therefore I Invent: Creative Computers and the Future of Patent Law’, Boston College Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, 2016 (also available at SSRN), in which he argues that the law should embrace treating non-humans as inventors because this ‘would incentivize the creation of intellectual property by encouraging the development of creative computers.’

As I shall explain, however, I do not agree with Professor Abbott that computers can, or should, be regarded as inventors for the purpose of granting patents.  Furthermore, while Abbott accepts claims that patents have already been granted on what he calls ‘computational inventions’, I firmly believe that a computer is yet to ‘invent’ anything.  In my view, the researchers and technologists who claim otherwise have an interest in promoting a particular perspective, and in doing so they are subtly extending the definitions of ‘creation’ and ‘invention’ to encompass the contribution of their machines, to the detriment of the human operators who are responsible for providing the true creative input in the process.

I am further concerned that, should this view of ‘machine as (co)inventor’ prevail, it will in fact be to the detriment of the patent system.  I think it highly unlikely that lawmakers – whether they be legislators or common-law judges – will embrace the idea of granting patents on machine inventions.  On the contrary, it seems far more probable that if the notion takes hold that computers are actually doing the ‘inventing’ in many cases, it will simply become even more difficult for humans to secure patent protection for computer-implemented, or computer-assisted, inventions.

This is a complex topic that I intend to cover in a series of articles.  In this first part, I will introduce the field of machine learning, give some examples, and then attempt to dispel some of the hype that has developed around this technology – including in Abbott’s work.  My aim here is primarily to refute the argument that existing machines are capable of engaging in ‘creative’ or ‘inventive’ activity.

07 January 2018

A Profile of Australian and New Zealand Patent Attorneys

Different StrokesAs of 24 February 2017, Australian and New Zealand patent attorneys (collectively ‘Trans-Tasman Patent Attorneys’) have been subject to a single joint regulatory and disciplinary regime administered by the Trans-Tasman IP Attorneys Board (‘the Board’).  Among other things, the Board is responsible for maintaining a register of patent attorneys, a searchable version of which is available on its website.  The register records details of each attorney including, in most cases, a contact address and the name of any attorney firm or company that employs or is operated by the attorney.  This information provides an opportunity to ‘profile’ the trans-Tasman patent attorney profession.

While there may be no such thing as an ‘average’ patent attorney, an analysis of the register permits a few statistical observations to be made.  For example, if you were to pick a trans-Tasman patent attorney at random, there is nearly a two-thirds probability that they are also registered as a trade marks attorney, around 80% chance that they work as an attorney in private practice, a 95% chance that they live in either Australia or New Zealand, just under 25% probability that they work for a firm with 24 or more other patent attorneys, and about a 30% probability that they are employed by a firm within one of Australia’s publicly-listed ownership groups.  There is also around 70% chance (if that is the right word) that they are a man.

There is one registered patent attorney in Australia for every 32,000 population, which compares to one for every 7,000 people in the United States.  You would think, therefore, that If the demand for patent attorney services in Australia matched that of the US then Australia’s attorneys would be drowning in work, and the profession would be experiencing explosive growth!  Of course that is not the case.  On the contrary, the Australian and New Zealand patent attorney professions have been undergoing significant structural changes in response to market challenges.  The numbers bear out just how substantial these changes have been in relation to the size of the trans-Tasman profession.

31 December 2017

The Year 2017 in Statistics, and a Look Ahead to 2018

ChampagneThis is the 55th article to be published on the Patentology blog for 2017.  According to Google Analytics, 38,571 unique users have visited this year, generating 97,141 page views in the course of 71,687 visits.  About 62% of all visits came from Australia, 14% from the US, 4% from New Zealand, and just over 2.5% from each of the UK and India.  Germany, Canada, Singapore, Japan, and Russia rounded out the top 10 origins of visitors.

The profile of technologies used to access the site strongly suggests that most visitors read the blog while at work.  Two thirds of all visits were via a computer running the Windows operating system.  Of these, a significant majority (62%) are using Windows 7, with the next most ‘popular’ versions being Windows 10 (27%) and Windows 8.1 (9%).  Personally, I do almost all of my online reading these days on a tablet or smartphone, yet only 15% of visits to Patentology in the past year were from iOS (iPhone/iPad) or Android devices.  Indeed, over the past three years there has been no significant change in the proportion of visitors accessing the site using mobile devices.  This bucks a general trend of internet usage – mobile web access surpassed desktop for the first time in November 2016.

Chrome won the ‘browser wars’.  Almost exactly 50% of visitors in 2017 used Google’s browser, followed distantly by Internet Explorer (almost entirely IE 11) on 18%, Safari on 17.5%, and Firefox on 10%.  Approximately nobody is using any other browser any more (including Microsoft’s Edge).

‘Organic search’ (i.e. web searches using Google, Bing, or another recognised engine) brought 62% of all visits in 2017.  A further 17% were ‘direct’ traffic – returning visitors accessing the blog from a bookmark, and new visitors who perhaps received a link or the URL from someone.  My weekly email bulletins (you can sign up here) generated around 11% of visits.  The remainder came from a variety of sources, including social media, 43% of which was via Twitter and 29% via LinkedIn.

17 December 2017

Australian Patent Office Finds Grace Period Applies to Applicant’s Own ‘Secret Prior Art’

Clock deadlineOne of the cardinal rules of the patent system is that you should not disclose your invention before you have filed an appropriate patent application.  An invention must be novel and involve an inventive step at the date of first filing.  These requirements are tested against the ‘prior art’, which is generally all information made available to the public, by anyone, at any earlier time.  This includes any disclosures made by inventors and/or applicants themselves.

In some countries, however, there are ‘grace period’ provisions that permit a patent application to be validly-filed during some limited period – typically 12 months – following a disclosure.  Australia is such a country.  Under the relevant Australian law and regulations, any information made publicly available, through any publication or use of the invention by an inventor or subsequent assignee of the invention, must be disregarded as prior art, so long as a patent application is filed within 12 months of the disclosure.  It turns out, however, that this is an overly-simplistic way to describe the way in which the grace period rules work.

A complication arises in the case of what we in Australia usually call a ‘whole of contents’ citation, and which our American counterparts tend to call ‘secret prior art’.  Patent applications are not usually published until 18 months after their earliest claimed filing date (i.e. priority date), which means that it is possible for a prior application (i.e. one for which the inventor claims an earlier priority date) to be published after a later application.  Under Australian law, such unpublished (i.e. ‘secret’) applications can be cited only in relation to novelty, but not for inventive step purposes.  This means that a later applicant is barred from obtaining a patent for something that an earlier applicant had demonstrably already invented, and is entitled to claim as their own.

But what happens when the applicants of the ‘secret’ prior application and the later application are one and the same?  On the face of it, this is not a situation that the grace period was designed to address.  Grace periods are about prior public disclosures, not prior unpublished applications.  Nonetheless, in a recent decision an Australian Patent Office hearing officer has managed to interpret the grace period rules in a manner that encompasses ‘self-whole-of-contents’ applications: Rozenberg & Co Pty Ltd. v Velin-Pharma A/S [2017] APO 61

How this outcome was achieved is quite interesting.  Whether it is correct or not is another matter – in my view there are arguments either way, although I am inclined to think that the grace period does not apply to ‘whole of contents’ citations, and that the law provides more appropriate mechanisms to deal with this situation.

10 December 2017

Pfizer Appeal Success Opens Door for Patent Litigation Over ENBREL Biosimilar

DiscoveryBack in March, I reported on a decision of Justice Stephen Burley denying Pfizer an order for preliminary discovery to confirm its belief that Samsung Bioepis AU (‘SBA’) was infringing a patent covering methods of producing Pfizer’s biological medicine for treatment of autoimmune diseases marketed under the name ENBREL.  At the time, I noted that the decision appeared to create a substantial barrier to enforcing patents relating to methods of producing biologics, since the very characteristics that make biosimilarity difficult to quantify – i.e. that similar physicochemical, biological, immunological, efficacy and safety characteristics may be observed despite variations in the structure of the complex biologic molecules – were what prevented Pfizer from convincing the court that it had a sufficient belief that infringement was occurring.  I therefore indicated that I would not be at all surprised to see the decision appealed.

Pfizer did indeed appeal, and a Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia has now handed down its decision, with three judges unanimous in overturning Justice Burley’s decision and granting Pfizer preliminary discovery: Pfizer Ireland Pharmaceuticals v Samsung Bioepis AU Pty Ltd [2017] FCAFC 193.

The key to Pfizer’s successful appeal lies in the wording of Rule 7.23(1)(a) of the Federal Court Rules, which relates to a precondition for an order for preliminary discovery that ‘the prospective applicant … reasonably believes that the prospective applicant may have the right to obtain relief in the Court from a prospective respondent’ (emphasis added).  The primary judge had determined that evidence provided by an expert witness on behalf of Pfizer did not provide a reasonable basis for its belief that SBA was infringing the Pfizer patents, but rather amounted to ‘mere suspicion’.  On appeal, the Full Court shifted focus away from evaluating the factual correctness, or otherwise, of expert evidence (which was, inevitably, in dispute between the parties), and back to the language of the Rule.

Thus, as Chief Justice Allsop stated (at paragraph [81] of the Full Court decision), ‘[i]t was not a matter of which body of expert evidence to prefer; rather, it was whether Pfizer reasonably believed that it may have a right to relief.’  Or, as Justice Perram observed (at paragraph [134]), ‘[t]he question was not whether [SBA’s expert] Professor Gray was right and Dr Ibarra was wrong. The question was whether the belief held by Mr Silvestri, the Assistant General Counsel and directing mind of Pfizer, was reasonable’.  Both judges also criticised a tendency for applications for preliminary discovery to mutate into ‘mini-trials’, in which a form of fact-finding takes place due to a ‘perceived need to show the reasonableness of a belief that a right to relief exists rather than might exist’ (at [119]).

This decision should provide comfort to patentees of biological processes, and indeed of manufacturing and other ‘hidden’ processes more generally.  It confirms that what a prospective applicant needs to prove in order to be granted preliminary discovery is not a likelihood that infringement is actually occurring, but only that there is some reasonable basis for its subjective belief that infringement may be occurring.  This should not only make preliminary discovery easier to obtain, but also ensure that applications for preliminary discovery do not continue to turn into costly and time-consuming mini-trials.

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