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Patenting AI in the UK – trends and outlook

17 July 2019

Growth is global and accelerating – US and Chinese dominance confirmed

The findings of the UK Intellectual Property Office’s (UKIPO’s) report on patent application filing activity in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) field complement those of a recent study by the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO).  At the global level, the UKIPO study finds that almost 30,000 AI patent applications were published in 2017 - an increase of over 400% compared with 2007.  These headline figures are dominated by AI patent applications published in the United States and China, as shown in the following figure.  For comparison, this figure also shows AI patent applications published by a selection of other intellectual property offices considered in the UKIPO study.

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Filing activity within the UK is encouraging, more than doubling over the past decade, with the vast majority of UK-filed patent applications having an overseas family member.
 
Around 88% of AI-related patents first filed in the UK are also protected elsewhere, and this is in contrast with two big global players, the US and China, who have 53% and 19% respectively of patents protected in other jurisdictions.
 
These findings reaffirm the global importance of AI.  In turn, we consider that they provide a strong indication of the need for IP strategies to have international focus in order to best commercialise AI inventions.

Domestic filing activity second to US filing activity when adjusted for overall activity
 
Despite the UK not being a leading territory for absolute numbers of AI-related patent applications filed, relative filing activity is competitive.  Over 1% of all patent applications filed with the UKIPO are now considered to relate to AI.

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With the UK being home to several high-profile companies and research hubs developing AI, DeepMind and the Cambridge technology cluster being two such examples, the above data might seem unsurprising.  Indeed, at the worldwide level, the UKIPO report finds that UK-based applicants and inventors rank 6th overall in terms of absolute filing activity.  The relatively low costs of filing patent applications with the UKIPO may also be a factor here - at least for obtaining cost-effective priority applications.  In keeping with the UK Government’s mission to advance the UK AI sector, all signs point to the UK remaining a key market.
 
UK bucks global trends in several technology areas
 
The UKIPO’s findings on filing activity by AI technique are consistent with earlier studies, with all sub-categories of machine learning (e.g., neural networks and (un)supervised learning) found to demonstrate substantial growth over the time range considered.  When the filing data is broken down by application area, however, noteworthy trends become apparent.  In particular, the following areas continue to see growth in contrast with global trends:

- Transport
  • - Speech recognition
  • - Image processing
  • - Audio-visual technology
 
The above areas are not mutually exclusive; the development of autonomous vehicles, for example, being involved with image processing to an extent.  Nevertheless, it appears that the UK’s strengths in AI commercialisation are becoming clearer, which will be worth tracking in future studies.

Outlook – how patentable is AI?
 
Given the pace at which AI is increasingly impacting upon daily life, with no signs of abating, from an IP perspective the key question remains: can I patent AI?  Whilst the legal framework remains mostly understood and predictable, clear and contemporary guidance is appreciated.  As recently noted by Supreme Court judge Lord Kitchin,
 
The law may be a little way behind the technology at this stage. But time and time again law makers have met challenges such as these. Now is the time to do so for AI.”
 
The major IP offices are proactive in answering this call, recently agreeing to cooperate on the effects of AI on the patent system and issuing their own guidance on patent application examination (see here for the European Patent Office and here for the Japanese Patent Office).  Legal challenges relating to AI inventorship issues are also under the spotlight.   In view of these recent developments, the future for patenting AI looks bright.
 
Note: The figures in this article have been sourced from Artificial Intelligence: A worldwide overview of AI patents and patenting by the UK AI sector and reproduced under the terms of the Open Government License.

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