01 August 2021

In Becoming the First Country to Recognise Non-Human Inventors, is Australia a Hero of Progress, or a Chump?

Menacing cyborgAs I recently (tentatively) predicted, on Friday 30 July 2021 Justice Beach in the Federal Court of Australia handed down a judgment giving Australia the dubious honour of becoming the first country in the world to legally recognise a non-human as a valid inventor on a patent application: Thaler v Commissioner of Patents [2021] FCA 879.  I would suggest that the remarkable speed with which this unnecessarily lengthy (228 paragraphs) decision was rendered, after being heard on 2 July 2021, may reflect the judge’s enthusiasm for issuing such a ground-breaking ruling.  Unfortunately, I do not share that enthusiasm, and I am confident that there are many others who are equally uncomfortable with the outcome.  My hope is that this includes officials within IP Australia and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and that the decision will be duly appealed to a Full Bench of the court.  It is, in my view, deeply regrettable that the Commissioner of Patents did not put on a stronger defence in the first instance because, even though an appeal was probably inevitable either way, the worldwide publicity that this decision is now generating is not necessarily beneficial for Australia.

The judge summarised his reasoning (at [10]) that:

…in my view an artificial intelligence system can be an inventor for the purposes of the Act. First, an inventor is an agent noun; an agent can be a person or thing that invents. Second, so to hold reflects the reality in terms of many otherwise patentable inventions where it cannot sensibly be said that a human is the inventor. Third, nothing in the Act dictates the contrary conclusion.

The patent system faces many challenges, but right now a need to grant more patents in a wider range of circumstances in not one of them.  We are in the grip of a global pandemic, and very serious questions are being asked about whether patents deliver a net benefit to the people of the world by incentivising the development of new vaccines and treatments, or whether they have the detrimental effect of denying affordable access to vital care and protection in poor and developing nations.  While I am firmly in the former camp, it only becomes harder to defend the patent system when opponents see the law expanding access to allow inventions generated by machines – potentially including those owned and controlled by giant corporations.

The standing and reputation of Australia and our patent laws are also at risk.  The country is already the target of criticism – rightly or wrongly – for declining to support calls for a waiver of IP provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS).  The Federal Court’s decision in Thaler is receiving global attention, and not all of it is positive.  One tweet (in Spanish) compares Australia’s patent-friendly approach unfavourably with the infamous incident of an early innovation patent being granted for a ‘circular transportation facilitation device’, a.k.a. the wheel.

Just because patents are (or, at least, can be) good, it does not follow that more patents, generated in more ways, by more entities, must be better.  Australia should not think that we will necessarily come across as a socially and technologically progressive nation by ‘leading the way’ on allowing patents to be granted for inventions generated by non-humans.  On the contrary, we risk being left out on our own and looking like chumps.  The United States will not follow our lead – there are Constitutional, statutory and procedural barriers to permitting US patent applications naming non-human inventors.  The European Patent Office will not follow in the foreseeable future – it has already established its position via an academic study and discussions with member states of the European Patent Convention.  The UK has so far rejected any expansion of inventorship to non-humans.  And, contrary to recent reports (and the claims of the Artificial Inventor Project’s Ryan Abbott), the recent grant of a patent in South Africa naming DABUS as inventor indicates nothing about that country’s law or position on the issue.  As South African patent attorney Pieter Visagie has explained, the application effectively avoided any scrutiny of the legitimacy of the inventor by virtue of being filed via the international (PCT) system.

So what does Australia gain by being the first – and possibly only – country in the world to legally recognise non-human inventors?  Nothing, as far as I can see, other than a whole lot of unneeded publicity and global scrutiny of our patent laws.  If we are lucky, we will not receive many serious patent applications for inventions generated by machine inventors, and little practical harm will be done.  At worst, however, we could become the only country in the world to grant patents on such inventions, mostly filed by foreign applicants, creating exclusive rights that are enforceable only in Australia to the relative detriment of Australian innovators and consumers.

25 July 2021

The Leading Firms for Australian Patent Filings in Financial Year 2021

Top of the chartIt is common to summarise patent filing numbers over calendar years – back in January I reported on various filing statistics for 2020, and IP Australia did likewise in April.  For most Australian businesses, however – including patent attorney firms – the more important reporting period is the financial year ending on the 30th of June.  It is therefore interesting to look at patent filing numbers over the 12 month period commencing at the beginning of July, overall and for individual firms.  In this article I will report on filing performance in the 2021 financial year (‘FY21’), which ran from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021, as compared with the previous (and, to some extent, earlier) financial year.

Surprisingly, despite the global pandemic, and a decline in filings over the 2020 calendar year, the number of Australian standard patent applications filed in FY21 grew by 3.6% over FY20, largely due to a very strong first six months of 2021.  Innovation patent applications surged ridiculously, to more than three times their numbers in FY20, for reasons that have nothing to do with either the pandemic, or a genuine interest by most applicants in obtaining enforceable rights.  Unfortunately for the health of the Australian innovation ecosystem (and the patent attorneys that support it), filings of new provisional applications declined by nearly 5% in FY21.

The leading firms for patent filings in FY21 were mostly the well-known names you would expect to see, although a couple of smaller firms have slipped into the top 20 on the strength of large numbers of innovation patent filings, primarily made on behalf of Chinese applicants.  The benefit of the growth in standard applications has not been shared equally, with a couple of big name firms experiencing a decline in new filings, while others did much better than the overall 3.6% growth rate.

I have also looked at the numbers of some key prosecution events – namely new examination requests, responses to examination reports, and acceptances – over the past few financial years.  These indicate that the overall prosecution workload increased slightly in FY21, ensuring that patent attorneys (and examiners) were kept busy with the examination of earlier-filed applications, despite the ongoing pandemic.  Strong numbers of examination requests filed in FY21 suggest that this work will continue to flow into, and beyond, the current financial year.

21 July 2021

Could Australia Become the First Country to Recognise Non-Human Inventors?

Machine inventorOn 2 July 2021, a hearing took place at the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne, before Justice Jonathan Beach, in the matter of Stephen Thaler v Commissioner of Patents.  This case concerns the question of whether a patent may be granted for an invention that was devised by a machine, rather than by a human inventor.  Back in February, I reported on the refusal by the Australian Patent Office to accept as valid an Australian patent application naming an ‘artificial intelligence’ going by the name DABUS (‘Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience’) as inventor.  And in March I reported that an application had been filed in the Federal Court for review of the Patent Office decision.

Regular readers will know my position on this issue – I do not consider it appropriate at this time (or, potentially, ever) to grant patents for inventions devised entirely by automated means, such that there is no human inventor.  I have written an article targeted to a more general audience, which has been published by InnovationAus, providing an overview of the Australian case, and broadly discussing my concerns.  Here I will be going into more detail of the arguments presented at the recent hearing, and why I think it would be very unfortunate if Justice Beach were to decide that this is a suitable case for judicial development of the law to embrace machine inventors, as he is being encouraged to do by Thaler.

I was able to attend the hearing virtually, since it was being held via web conference.  Thaler’s team, led by experienced and highly-regarded barrister David Shavin QC, appeared in person in the Melbourne courtroom with Justice Beach, while the Commissioner of Patents was represented by Hamish Bevan, appearing via video from Sydney (subject to restrictions, due to an ongoing COVID outbreak).  Although I disagree with the proposition, I thought that Mr Shavin presented a persuasive argument that the relevant provisions of the Australian Patents Act 1990 can, and should, be interpreted to encompass non-human inventors, and that Mr Bevan perhaps did not do enough to counter this argument.  I formed the impression that Justice Beach just might be minded to ‘develop’ the Australian law to permit patent applications having no human inventor, in part because he was not presented with any particularly good reasons not to do so.

09 July 2021

Who Are Australia’s Leading Global Patent Applicants?

Globe showing AustraliaThis is a guest contribution from Mike Lloyd of Patent-Insights.  Mike has previously contributed articles on the impact, from an Australian perspective, of COVID-19 on international patent, trade mark, and registered designs filings, and on what patent data can tell us about the Australian government’s plan for local manufacturing?  Further details about the author can be found at the end of the article.

There is an increasing realisation that a successful economy is also a smart economy, and a smart economy is strengthened by having companies and organisations innovating and commercialising their inventions.

Luckily Australia is full of companies and organisations doing exactly this.  But who are these companies, and in what areas are they innovating in?

To answer this question with the most recent yet reliable data, I have looked at patent global publication data for Australian companies filed in the 12 months prior to 31 March 2021.  I have chosen this period as it is the latest quarter for which reliable data is available. By coincidence this is also the 12 month period after COVID-19 made its impact known, but maybe it is too soon to fully understand the effect of COVID in this area.

30 June 2021

How Effective is Australia’s 12 Month Acceptance Deadline in Limiting Examination Delays?

AccelerateOne of the objectives of the Raising the Bar IP law reforms – most of which commenced on 15 April 2013 – was to reduce delays in the resolution of patent (and trade mark) applications.  The perceived problem with such delays was not that applicants were unhappy with the speed of processing of their applications (in fact, most choose to defer examination and acceptance of their patent applications), but rather that delays create uncertainty about whether a patent will be granted, and what scope the granted claims might have.  As noted in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Raising the Bar Bill, ‘[d]elay may suit the party, but it is not in the interests of the public, or the party’s competitors.’

There were four main features of the reforms that were expected to reduce delays and uncertainty:

  1. reduction, from six months to two months, of the period within which an applicant is required to request examination, once directed to do so by the patent office;
  2. reduction of the maximum period available for an applicant to obtain acceptance of a patent application, following issue of an initial examination report, from 21 months down to 12 months;
  3. ‘tightening’ of the rules around when divisional applications can be validly filed, to reduce opportunities for what the Explanatory Memorandum describes as ‘abusive uses’; and
  4. refinement of opposition proceedings, mostly in the form of more stringent criteria for obtaining extensions of time.

The reforms to opposition proceedings had an almost immediate impact, since they applied to all new oppositions filed on or after 15 April 2013, as well as (to a more limited degree) oppositions that were already in progress.  However, since over 99.5% of all accepted applications are not opposed, the reduction in opposition duration is irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of cases. 

It has taken longer to reach the point at which there is sufficient data to evaluate the effect of the change to the examination period, since this only applied to applications for which a request for examination was filed on or after 15 April 2013.  Many of these applications remained in the system for years.  Indeed, the last patent to be granted under the pre-Raising the Bar regime – without being additionally delayed by opposition proceedings – was no. 2010311063, which was derived from a PCT application that entered the national phase in Australia on 17 May 2012.  Examination was requested on 9 April 2013, and a first report issued on 7 August 2018 (after the application inadvertently lapsed and was restored).  The application was eventually accepted on 17 February 2020, and the patent granted on 18 June 2020.

I have now analysed nearly two decades worth of Australian patent examination data, spanning the period before and after commencement of the Raising the Bar reforms.  Further details and charts are below, but in summary I have found that:

  1. reduction of the maximum examination period by nine months (from 21 to 12 months) has resulted in a drop of only a little over three months in the median period between initial examination and acceptance of successful applications;
  2. the reforms have not, however, resulted in any lasting improvement in the pendency of the most ‘stubborn’ applications, which are only accepted following one or more divisional applications being filed for the purposes of continuing examination (for want of any better term, I call these ‘continuation divisionals’);
  3. as a result, the ‘top’ 2% of cases are still pending for 900 days or more between an initial examination report being issued and an application finally being accepted;
  4. perversely, following an initial temporary drop in the number of continuation divisionals, the reforms actually seem to have resulted in an increase in the proportion of divisional applications that are filed for the primary purpose of continuing examination;
  5. on the other hand, however, the major use (i.e. over 60%) of divisional applications remains their primary purpose of pursuing alternative claims following acceptance of claims in a parent application.

Overall, reducing the examination period has had a relatively minimal effect on total pendency of patent applications – a reduction in the time prior to examination, i.e. between filing and a first examination report being issued, has been much more significant.  However, it appears to have had the unintended consequence of increasing the use of divisional applications to continue examination.

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