USPTO

Who Qualifies for the Patent Bar? Proposed Changes May Mean More Applicants With Computer Science Degrees Soon Will

Nina Elder, MJLST Staffer

Last month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) put out a request for comments on a proposal to amend the admission requirements for the registration examination it administers. Passing this examination, colloquially referred to as the patent bar, is required before an aspiring practitioner can practice patent matters before the USPTO. To qualify for the test, applicants must demonstrate that they have the appropriate scientific and technical training. There are three ways to qualify, but most applicants are automatically admitted under “Category A” which simply requires a degree in an approved topic. The USPTO has historically adhered strictly to its list of approved degrees; for example, “biology” is included on the list, but in the past a degree in “biological sciences” did not qualify.

In 2021, the USPTO made its first major change to the admission requirements in years by expanding the degrees accepted under Category A to include advanced degrees and 14 new undergraduate majors. Though it did not officially announce it, the USPTO also edited its Frequently Asked Questions to reflect that it no longer requires that an applicant’s degree match a Category A degree title exactly, but instead evaluates any degree that is similar to an approved degree to determine if they are equivalent. However, even after these improvements there was still a clear lack of approved computer science-related degrees, and many attorneys felt the USPTO needed to do more. The USPTO’s new proposal at least partially addresses this issue and suggests several more changes, a key one being removing the certification requirement for computer science degrees.

Currently, computer science degrees only qualify under Category A if they are certified by either the Computing Accreditation Commission or the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. This is the only degree accepted under Category A that requires extra certification. Qualifying under either of the alternative routes—Category B or C—may be nearly impossible for many students with computer science degrees. Category B requires an applicant establish they have the necessary training by showing they have a certain number of credits in particular scientific topics. However, the coursework needed for a computer science degree typically does not align with the subjects required for Category B such as physics, chemistry, and biology. Under Category C an applicant can prove they have practical training by taking the Fundamentals of Engineering test, but once again the information covered for a degree in computer science may not prepare a student for such a test. 

As of November 2022, there are only 368 schools in the US with a qualifying certified computer science program. Many highly respected schools, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon, do not have the required certification for their computer science programs. Considering there appear to be more than 700 four-year schools that offer computer science degrees, there are likely hundreds of computer science students graduating every year that do not qualify to take the patent bar under Category A and may have difficulty qualifying under Category B or C. Even if a school becomes accredited, any student that received a degree before that accreditation does not qualify.

The certification requirement may be excluding the “best and brightest” computer practitioners, and is contributing to the lack of practitioners with relevant experience in a heavily patented area. There is a huge disconnect between the number of patents related to software and the number of practitioners with a relevant background. As of 2010, less than 5% of patent practitioners trained in a computer science-related field. While decisions such as Alice Corp v CLS Bank International have limited what software can be patented, a growing number of patents at least include some element relating to computers and more than 60% of utility patents issued in 2019 related to software. There is clearly an increasing need for competent patent attorneys with experience in software and, if adopted, the USPTO’s current proposal would increase that pool.

It has also been suggested that altering patent bar requirements may improve diversity in patent law. Despite women making up more than 37% of attorneys in the US, only 17% of patent attorneys are women. Less than 15% of patent practitioners with a background in computer science are women. The picture is even more striking when we examine racial diversity—less than 7% of all patent attorneys and agents are minorities. Shockingly, there are more male patent practitioners named Michael than women of color. The USPTO’s broadening of the accepted degrees last year was spurred by a journal article written by a law student, Mary Hannon, suggesting that changes to patent bar admission may help address the low number of women in patent law. While she acknowledged that removing the computer science certification requirement would not close the gender gap since the majority of computer science graduates are men, she pointed out that by allowing more individuals with computer science degrees to take the patent bar the overall number of women admitted to the exam may increase

Many have been pushing for changes to the patent bar admission requirements for years, and while it is promising to see progress being made, there is still more that can be done. Organizations such as the American Intellectual Property Law Association have suggested Category A be broadened even further to include degrees such as data science and mathematics. The USPTO has not only shown willingness to continue updating these requirements, as evidenced by the fact it is proposing to regularly consider and add new Category A degrees, but also that it is responsive to comments. For example, environmental engineering was added to the list of accepted degrees at least partially in response to a comment. Kathi Vidal, USPTO’s current director, explained the goal is to ensure the USPTO remains dynamic by recognizing the new types of degrees being awarded as society and technology evolve. In its recent request for comments, the USPTO asked commenters to weigh in on its new proposals and to submit general suggestions on updating the scientific and technical requirements for admission to the patent bar. Comments close on January 17th, 2023—if you have thoughts about the degrees the USPTO should accept under Category A, go comment!



I Think, Therefore I Am: The Battle for Intellectual Property Rights with Artificial Intelligence

Sara Pistilli, MJLST Staffer

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a computer or robot that is able to perform tasks that are usually done by humans because they require human judgement and intellect. Some AI can be self-learning, allowing them to learn and progress beyond their initial programming. This creates an issue of inventorship when AI creates patentable subject matter without any contribution from the original inventor of the AI system. This technological advancement has posed the larger question of whether AI qualifies as an “individual” under the United States Patent Act and whether people who create AI machines are able to claim the patent rights when the AI has created the patentable subject matter.

Artificial Intelligence “Inventors”

Patent law is continuously changing as technology expands and advances. While the law has advanced to accommodate innovative technology in the past, the introduction of AI has not been fully articulated. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) opened up for comment on patenting AI inventions in 2019, however, it does not appear they asked for any further purpose other than to gather information from the public. The USPTO again asked for comment about patent eligibility jurisprudence as it related to specific technological areas, including AI in 2021. They gathered this information as a “study” and did not pursue any official action. The first official push to recognize AI as an inventor was by Dr. Stephen Thaler. Thaler built an AI machine called “DABUS,” and sought patent rights for the machine’s inventions. Thaler did not argue for DABUS to be the patent right holder, but rather the machine to be named the inventor with Thaler as the patent owner. Thaler’s insistence to name DABUS as the inventor complies with USPTO’s rulesregarding an inventor’s oath or declaration that accompanies a patent application.

United States’ Rulings

Thaler applied for patent rights over a food container and devices and methods for attracting enhanced attention. Both of these products were invented by his AI machine, DABUS. After applying for a U.S. patent, the USPTO rejected his application stating that U.S. law does not allow for artificial intelligence to be listed as an inventor on a patent application or patent. USPTO cited the Patent Act, stating an inventor must be a person, not a machine. USPTO stated that to allow “inventor” to include machines was too broad. Thaler requested reconsideration from the USPTO which was later denied. In 2021, Thaler appealed his rejection in the Eastern District of Virginia. Thaler failed to obtain patent rights with Judge Brinkema ruling only a human can be an inventor. Judge Brinkema relied heavily on statutory interpretation of the word “individual” which was performed by the Supreme Court in a 2012 case on the Torture Victim Protection Act. The Supreme Court had concluded that an “individual” referred to a “natural person.” Judge Brinkema further stated, that it will be up to Congress’ discretion on how they would like to alter patent law to accommodate for AI in the future. Thaler now has a pending appeal to the Court of Appeals.

International Rulings

While countries’ patent systems are independent of one another, they can be influenced based on technological and regulatory advancement happening in another country. Thaler has sought patent rights for DABUS’ two inventions discussed above in several countries including, but not limited to, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. Thaler obtained patent rights in South Africa, constituting a first in intellectual property history. Of note, however, is that South Africa’s patent system does not have a substantive patent examination system like other countries, nor do their patent laws define “inventor.” Thaler received a more persuasive ruling in Australia that may be able to effectuate change in other countries.  In 2021, Thaler’s patent application was denied in Australia. The Australian Patent Office (APO) stated that the language of the Patents Act was inconsistent with AI being treated as an inventor. Thaler appealed this decision to the Federal Court of Australia. Justice Beach ordered that this case must be remitted based on his ruling that AI can be a recognized inventor under the Australian Patents Act. Judge Beach further stated that AI cannot, however, be an applicant for a patent or an owner of a patent. It is with these reasons that Judge Beach requested reconsideration and remitted this case back to the Deputy Commissioner of the APO. The APO is now appealing this decision. Similar to the APO, the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) also pushed back against Thaler’s application for patent rights. In 2019, the UKIPO rejected Thaler’s application stating that the listing of DABUS as an inventor did not meet the requirements of the United Kingdom’s Patent Act. They stated a person must be identified as the inventor. Thaler appealed this rejection and was again denied by the UKIPO, who stated that a machine as an inventor does not allow for the innovation desired by patent rights. Thaler appealed again, to the England and Wales Patents Court, and was again denied patent rights. The judge stated that Thaler was using the Patent Act text out of context for his argument, ruling that the Patent Act cannot be construed to allow non-human inventors. In 2021, Thaler appealed this decision in the England and Wales Court of Appeals. He was again denied patent rights with all three judges agreeing that a patent is a right that can only be granted to a person and, that an inventor must be a person.

Future Prospects

Thaler currently has pending applications in several countries including Brazil, Canada, China, and Japan. The outcome of the appeal against the Federal Court of Australia’s decision on whether AI can be an inventor may prove crucial in helping to amend U.S. patent laws. Similarly, if more countries, in addition to South Africa, outright grant Thaler his patent rights, the U.S. may be forced to re-think their policies on AI-invented patentable subject matter.