30 May 2018
More than 350 representatives of industry, academia, user associations, patent law firms, the judiciary, national patent offices and government bodies gathered in Munich today to discuss the challenges and opportunities of "Patenting Artificial Intelligence" (AI) at the EPO's first major conference on the topic.
In his opening remarks, Alberto Casado, EPO Vice-President for the Patent Granting Process, said that the main aim of the conference was to "raise awareness and launch an open exchange of views". He outlined the three ways in which patent offices will be affected by the rapidly-developing technologies underpinning the fourth industrial revolution (4IR): the protection of AI with patents - the main focus of this conference - and other intellectual property rights, the use of AI in the development of inventions, and the use of AI in the patenting process. "The fast evolution of artificial intelligence and 4IR-related patent applications presents specific challenges. We aim to continually improve and develop our processes and services to best fit with changing needs, and ultimately to protect IP for the benefit and economic growth of Europe and society at large," Mr Casado said.
In a series of presentations and panel discussions, participants discussed various solutions for how the patent system can provide applicants with a solid framework for patenting AI inventions.
The morning session focused on the current situation of patenting AI, with three keynote speeches, chaired by US patent attorney Rob Sterne. Technology "evangelist" Clare Dillon set the scene by outlining the latest trends and scope of the current "AI explosion", which is not restricted to the ICT industry but "impacts the scale and speed of innovation in every area". Citing the main elements needed to make AI a success, she said: "Patents and the EPO have a huge role to play in developing and accelerating the economic viability of AI."
In his keynote, the EPO's Chief Economist Yann Ménière highlighted the rapid growth of 4IR patent applications in recent years, and the implications for patent offices, based on the findings of a recent EPO study on this topic. A third keynote speech, by EPO Director Koen Lievens, explained the Office's approach to examining patent applications in this area. The EPO speakers pointed to the fact that the Office has developed a stable and predictable approach to computer-implemented inventions (CII) within the framework of the European Patent Convention, backed by a solid body of case law. Some 50% of the patent applications the EPO receives in the areas of automotive and medical technology already have a CII component. An update to the Guidelines for Examination at the EPO will be published this autumn, which will provide more specific guidance on the examination of AI applications, under existing CII practice and case law.
In a number of panel discussions, patent professionals shared their strategies and lessons learned relating to patenting AI inventions. This included discussion of example cases, looking at how patent applications were drafted and how they were handled by the EPO. Margarethe Zmuda of Ericsson summed up: "There are challenges in each and every phase of the life of an invention: the evaluation and patent drafting phase, the patent application prosecution phase, and the enforcement phase." Participants proposed various solutions and debated the need to speed up the patent granting process, provide earlier publication of patent applications, adapt the model so as to protect the business as the inventor, or even to make substantial legislative changes including the patentability criteria to address the challenges of AI.
In the afternoon, two panels focused on the post-grant aspects of AI patents and ownership, and the societal and ethical considerations of patented AI inventions. The speakers, who included patent practitioners from Japan and the US, outlined the latest developments in their country. Throughout the day, and in particular during this last session on societal issues, a large number of questions and comments from the audience ensured a lively discussion.
In his closing remarks, Grant Philpott, the EPO's Chief Operating Officer for ICT, highlighted recent reforms implemented by the EPO to increase quality and efficiency, which have prepared the Office for the future: "AI is clearly an area of rapid growth and immense opportunity for innovation. But the patent system will have to work very hard to ensure that it remains precisely that - an opportunity. Events such as this one help us to meet that challenge, ensuring that AI and its impact on patents and patentability is dealt with systematically and in unison with all stakeholders."
The EPO will publish material and videos of the conference on its website in the coming weeks.
The Office also plans to hold a similar conference on patenting blockchain technology, another rapidly developing field.