Human-Robot Interfaces Should Be Subject to Legal Protection

In the News
December 21, 2016

Human-robot interactions, once confined to science fiction, are becoming part of daily life.

In addition to manufacturing and automated teller machines, robot interfaces are replacing purely human interactions in variety of service-sector interactions. Soon, clerical work, transportation, and drive-through eateries will be automated. Some robots are becoming more human-like in appearance, interactions, and cognitive function.

The Henn-na Hotel in Japan is illustrative of this trend. It bills itself as “the world’s first hotel staffed by robots.” The hotel uses robots for reception, as porters, and for room service. The Henn-Na Hotel describes its robots as “mechanical yet somehow human,” and claims that they “will warm your heart.”

As another example, Japan has indicated that robots will be a central part of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, including directing spectators to their seats.

In the realm of intellectual property law, however, robots are not merely functional items confined to the practice area of patent protection. Consumers will certainly associate the appearance or other attributes of these robots with their respective sources, giving rise to the question, “What protection is available when the appearance of the robot becomes an emblem of my business?”

Trademark protection extends to logos, sounds, images, and words that operate to identify the source of a good or service.

Functional aspects — e.g., aspects related to the essential use, cost, or quality — are not protectable as a trademark, but might be protectable under patent or copyright protection. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that a robot would have numerous non-functional aspects, including name, likeness, costume, voice, and even a catchphase.

Business Takeaways:

  • The public will associate robot interfaces will brands as service robots become more common in retail, hospitality, and other service industries.
  • During the design and marketing phases, robot suppliers and users should protect their intellectual property, including patent and trademark protection of distinctive components.
  • A number of technological and legal developments have begun setting precedents for the control of imagery and sounds of human-machine interfaces.

Protecting robot interfaces

A search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office‘s database reveals...

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