Intellectual property (IP) officials in South Africa have made history in a landmark decision to award a patent that names an artificial intelligence (AI) as the inventor.

The patent—which was filed by an international team of lawyers and researchers led by the University of Surrey’s, Professor of Law and Health Sciences, Ryan Abbott —is for a food container based on fractal geometry. This container was designed and created by an AI called DABUS (“device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience”).

Historically, an “inventor” of a patent had to be a human being, although the ownership of that patent is commonly given to the company that employs the inventor. While patent law in many jurisdictions is very specific in how it defines an inventor, the DABUS team is arguing that the status quo is not fit for purpose in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As AI plays an ever-increasing role in the design of ideas, the DABUS case could have significant repercussions on intellectual property law. The DABUS team has similar cases moving through UK, European, US and other court systems.

Earlier this year, the president of the European Patent Office, António Campinos intervened in the European case on the basis that it was “of high importance and general interest.” *

Professor Adrian Hilton, Director of the Institute for People-Centred AI at the University of Surrey, said: “This is a truly historic case that recognizes the need to change how we attribute invention. We are moving from an age in which invention was the preserve of people to an era where machines are capable of realizing the inventive step, unleashing the potential of AI-generated inventions for the benefit of society.

“The School of Law at the University of Surrey has taken a leading role in asking important philosophical questions such as whether innovation can only be a human phenomenon, and what happens legally when AI behaves like a person. We are delighted our staff and students are at the forefront of these deeply significant debates, and now realities.”

The potential of AI invention is recognized in the recently launched New Innovation Strategy** announced by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on 22 July 2021. The New Innovation Strategy sets out plans to cement the UK’s position as a world leader in science, research and innovation.


*Click here to see the ‘Request to comment from the president of EPO’. General enquiry 29.09.2020.

**New Innovation Strategy – New plans to put UK at front of global innovation race.


About the University of Surrey 

The University of Surrey – a global community of ideas and people, dedicated to life-changing education and research. The University of Surrey is a research-intensive university committed to teaching and research excellence with a focus on practice-based education programmes, providing a world-class experience to its students who go on to make positive contributions to society. It is committed to working in partnership with students, business, government and communities in the discovery and application of knowledge. 


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