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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Property ownership and the legal personhood of artificial intelligence

Brown, R. D. (2020).
Information & Communications Technology Law, 
30(2), 208–234.


This paper adds to the discussion on the legal personhood of artificial intelligence by focusing on one area not covered by previous works on the subject – ownership of property. The author discusses the nexus between property ownership and legal personhood. The paper explains the prevailing misconceptions about the requirements of rights or duties in legal personhood, and discusses the potential for conferring rights or imposing obligations on weak and strong AI. While scholars have discussed AI owning real property and copyright, there has been limited discussion on the nexus of AI property ownership and legal personhood. The paper discusses the right to own property and the obligations of property ownership in nonhumans, and applying it to AI. The paper concludes that the law may grant property ownership and legal personhood to weak AI, but not to strong AI.

From the Conclusion

This article proposes an analysis of legal personhood that focuses on rights and duties. In doing so, the article looks to property ownership, which raises both requirements. Property ownership is certainly only one type of legal right, which also includes the right to sue or be sued, or legal standing, and the right to contract.Footnote195 Property ownership, however, is a key feature of AI since it relies mainly on arguably the most valuable property today: data.

It is unlikely that governments and legislators will suddenly recognise in one event AI’s ownership of property and AI’s legal personhood. Rather, acceptance of AI’s legal personhood, as with the acceptance of a corporate personhood will develop as a process and in stages, in parallel to the development of legal personhood. At first, AI will be deemed as a tool and not have the right to own property. This is the most common conception of AI today. Second, AI will be deemed as an agent, and upon updating existing agency law to include AI as a person for purposes of agency, then AI will also be allowed to own property as an agent in the same agency ownership arrangement that Rothenberg proposes. While AI already acts as de facto agent in many circumstances today through electronic contracts, most governments and legislators have not recognised AI as an agent. The laws of many countries like Qatar still defines an agent as a person, which upon strict interpretation would not include AI or an electronic agent. This is an existing gap in the laws that will likely create legal challenges in the near future.

However, as AI develops its ability to communicate and assert more autonomy, then AI will come to own all sorts of digital assets. At first, AI will likely possess and control property in conjunction with human action and decisions. Examples would be the use of AI in money laundering, or hiding digital assets by placing them within the control and possession of an AI. In some instances, AI will have possession and control of property unknown or unforeseen by humans.

If AI is seen as separate from data, as the software that processes and interprets data for various purposes, self-learns from the data, makes autonomous decisions, and predicts human behaviour and decisions, then there could come a time when society will view AI as separate from data. Society may come to view AI not as the object (the data) but that which manipulates, controls, and possesses data and digital property.

Brief Summary:

Granting property ownership to AI is a complex one that raises a number of legal and ethical challenges. The author suggests that further research is needed to explore these challenges and to develop a framework for granting property ownership to AI in a way that is both legally sound and ethically justifiable.