By: Camille Albrecht
In the heart of every child is an inventor; with the naive need to save the world from the irritations of everyday life. Elaborate plans for automatic homework machines, anti-drip ice cream eating apparatuses, and self-cleaning bedrooms, all come to mind when thinking about inventions a child might create that could change the world. Afterall, an inventor is just a dreamer with perseverance and resources. There is no doubt that these ideas are inventions. If a working prototype of a novel way to solve these problems were presented by a child everyone would readily accept that they were the inventor, but would everyone accept that a patent should be granted?
Essentially a patent, trademark or copyright, is a legal contract giving one the right to protect your ideas from others who may to exploit it. Can a child legally enter into a contract? The idea of intellectual property ownership suddenly becomes murky when we view it from a legal standpoint. Can a minor own a patent? Is a contract signed by someone who doesn’t quite know how to spell their whole name legal? What about the future? What if they change their mind about the terms next week, or in 5 years? The questions come quickly as you follow the process to a logical conclusion. Even those people who are unfamiliar with the way intellectual property cases are typically litigated will easily envision problems arising when these contracts are challenged in court. Society must make a choice: Who do we limit from owning the right to their own ideas? When asked about the legal advice he might provide to a minor seeking a trademark registration, Attorney Nicholas Wells of Legends Law Group, PLLC stated, “I would recommend that a parent or legal guardian apply on behalf of the child. This eliminates the risk of weakening the protectability and legal status of the trademark if there were ever a question in the future.”
In theory, any “person” who has intelligence has the potential to create intellectual property. The theoretical or philosophical side of this question is one thing, but from a legal standpoint the definition of who can own intellectual property is more complicated. The precise definition is constantly being adjusted as new legal decisions push the boundaries. Recently, new advances in technology are forcing a new look at the definition from an entirely new perspective. Can “Artificial Intelligence” own intellectual property? The word “intelligence” is right there in the name. If it seems natural to accept the idea that intelligence can create intellectual property, how is artificial intelligence different?
How long did George Washington spend pondering this question in 1790 when the first patent law was passed in the US? We can only guess, but I would assume it was probably not long. However, patent examiners in the United Kingdom are currently spending countless hours debating how to answer this very question, and similar patent applications are filed in the United States and other countries as well. The answer that comes from these decisions will have far reaching consequences in the way we view intelligence and the ideas that spring from it. As always, the definition will experience some growing pains as we work to incorporate a technology that was not conceived of in previous iterations of the law.
If artificial intelligence is NOT allowed to own intellectual property rights, does that stifle the innovation of the human beings who are working on this technology? Will it hinder the future of the technology as a whole? Patents issued by the government were created to encourage innovation and improve the quality of life of all citizens. It would seem counter to the fundamental purpose then to say no, artificial intelligence cannot own a patent, but there is always another side. If artificial intelligence CAN own intellectual property, does it dilute the definition of human? Does that decision include intelligence that also does not currently possess legal status such as minor children or animals? It will be interesting to observe how these questions are answered as the current patent applications progress through the examination process. The very definition of what constitutes an idea may be challenged before the process if finished. Society is, this very second, determining who or what has the right to their own ideas.