Russ Slifer served as Deputy Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for the final two years of the Obama Administration. On Monday, March 20, 2017, I had the opportunity to speak with him on the record for an exclusive interview. In Part 1 of our interview we discussed the events that transpired at the end of the Obama Administration and the mechanics of resigning from a political appointment. In Part 2 of our interview we discussed a variety of substantive issues relating to inter partes review (IPR) and ways to improve the procedures to protect patent owners. In this final segment we begin talking about something Slifer wanted specifically to address — Tony Scardino being named Acting Deputy Director. We then proceed to some of fun, “get to know you” questions that range from sports, to movies, to music, to what, if any advice Slifer would give himself if he could be transported back in time to meet himself as he was embarking upon a career in the law.
Without further ado, this is the final segment of my interview with Russ Slifer. You will, however, read that Slifer is willing to come back in the coming months for a substantive discussion of patent eligibility. Stay tuned for that yet to be scheduled interview sequel.
QUINN: And I appreciate you taking the time and if you have a little extra time here, I think I’ve gotten everything in that I wanted to talk to you about but occasionally at the end of interview I try and ask a handful of what I call fun questions to kind of get to know you a little bit. Are you –
SLIFER: Before we do that, if you don’t mind, I wanted to address one topic. Because you know, I follow your blog and I read a lot of the articles and you know there are only a few of us that have been able to both experience from the inside and look from the outside and so I know my perspective is different. But there were a couple of articles and one of them recently was talking about the fee increase.
SLIFER: And some criticism if you will, not only about Trump’s two-for-one requirement on regulations but also that the fee increase is in part due to funding of the PTAB and things like that. I wanted to address that real quick if you don’t mind?
QUINN: Sure, sure go right ahead.
SLIFER: And one reason why Tony Scardino is Acting as the Deputy right now is some of the most important challenges facing the agency during a transition time, and some of these decisions were made not knowing whether Michelle Lee was going to be asked to stay on, are operational and budgetary issues. Tony is a great CFO and knows the operations of the Agency. Although his background in IP is limited, his knowledge of the USPTO is deep and he is a wonderful resource for Michelle as she builds her new permanent team. The Patent Office has a lot of fixed costs whether that’s the fixed labor costs of all the employees that are needed to process the trademarks and the patents, or the cost in continuing to improve the IT infrastructure of the agency. You may not know, but I set out cutting the budget two years ago and shaved close to $500 million off the budget proactively by basically cutting the discretionary budget by 60%. So that the Office would maintain a floor in its reserve fund so that it would remain healthy. But without a fee increase there is a real risk that by next year the agency is going to be running out of money. So all of the plans that were put in place were put in place with the intent to use the responsibility carefully that Congress gave us to set the appropriate fee levels. Before we raised the fees we cut our budget as tight as we could. So part of my concern right now is that if the agency doesn’t get that fee increase passed there is going to be extreme pressure on the agency to cut the IT spend which is going to harm both the agency and the public frankly, by not getting to those next generation tools fast enough, and we’ve been working hard launching those systems – you continue to see problems with the legacy systems that affect both the public and the operations of the agency. So I just wanted to address that briefly and say look at the PPAC reports, listen to what’s being explained. There are long term strategic reasons for putting forward the fee increase and the necessity of actually doing that to keep a healthy agency.
QUINN: Okay. That’s interesting because now with the White House coming out with their budget and wanting the Department of Commerce to take $1.5 billion decrease compared to fiscal year 2017 there are a lot of questions. And obviously they’ll have to go through the Congress, but there will be many interesting questions on fees and budgets over the next few months I’m afraid.
SLIFER: Yeah, that’s going to be a tough time if the fee increase is delayed or deferred indefinitely it’s going to put a real pressure on the agency to be able to meet its mission. Even though the agency is healthy right now without those increases it’s going to face some real difficult challenges. And that unfortunately will result in an increase in the backlog and an increase in the pendency because there is just no way to keep the resources that are necessary to keep moving in the direction everybody wants it to go. The pendency and backlog need to continue to be a high priority but to meet that priority continues to take resources and it’s just going to be some tough decisions that are going to have to be made over the course of the next year, year and a half if those increases are delayed, deferred or denied.
QUINN: Okay. Well, do you have time to do anymore?
SLIFER: Sure, sure, if you want, that’s fine.
QUINN: These are just questions I started asking a while ago. Are you familiar with Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton?
SLIFER: I’ve seen it yeah.
QUINN: These questions are inspired by what he does at the end of his interviews. He asks these questions at the end that are interesting, provocative and this is my pathetic attempt to do something equally interesting to try and kind of get to know some of the personalities in our industry a little bit more than just what they’re doing in the patent world or what their position is on X, Y, and Z. So the first general question is this: If you’re going to unplug and recharge and just spend time for yourself what are you going to do? Is it going to be playing sports, watching sports, reading a book, something else?
SLIFER: Interestingly enough the way that I like to unplug and recharge is to get my hands dirty. So whether that’s working around my property here or working on an old car that I’ve got in the garage or something that allows me to kind of reconnect to the engineering side of me.
QUINN: So tell me about your property. Is it a ranch?
SLIFER: I wouldn’t call it a ranch. I’ve got about 15 acres here in Boise but I don’t raise anything on it. I just spend a lot of my time maintaining it. For example this week I totally tore apart the whole irrigation pump and rebuilt it. So for me doing things like that where I get to use my mind and my body instead of just my mind is actually a way for me to relax. I also like to play a lot of golf when I can squeeze it in – it’s a frustrating sport that actually provides me a lot of relaxation too.
QUINN: Yes, that was just way to frustrating for me to ever really enjoy. I just don’t understand the pleasure in chasing this little tiny ball around for 18 holes. [Laughter]
SLIFER: Yeah, it appeals on different levels to different people. And I met a lot of engineers over time that loved playing pool. And one reason at least is because you use a lot of mathematical calculations in your head, of angles of impact and rebound, and then try to implement that out on a pool table. I like to do similar things in golf and just try to calculate how to make the ball do what I want. So for me it’s a game of strategy as much as anything.
QUINN: For me it’s a game of fishing balls out of the water hazard. [Laughter] So favorite sport then, I guess, is to play would be golf. Do you have a favorite sport to watch?
SLIFER: I enjoy professional football. I’m not a big sports watcher. And I know it’s probably boring to most people but I do like watching professional golf but the season that’s gonna catch me in front of the TV the most is going to be watching NFL.
QUINN: Me, too. I’m an NFL junkie. How about movies? Do you have a favorite movie?
SLIFER: When it comes to movies and books I like history and maybe a little historical fiction. So recently one movie that I saw was Hidden Figures. That was really a nice movie. Combining a story of NASA and the women that played an integral role in getting our astronauts into space, I enjoy those kinds of movies.
QUINN: Okay. Do you have a favorite author?
SLIFER: No, you know, basically the last couple of years I haven’t had the opportunity to spend much time reading. I’ve really dedicated most all of my time to the PTO so I didn’t read too much during the last couple of years.
QUINN: I know what you mean. I still would tell people if they asked me my favorite author is Vince Flynn but I read so much during the day that picking up a book at the end of the day to just sit and read is not usually the thing I’m going to be doing.
SLIFER: It’s not that relaxing to me.
QUINN: Well, how about music? What kind of music do you listen to?
SLIFER: Ah, you know, I’m still stuck in the 70s. I like a little of everything but if you look at my iPad or my iPod the one thing that you won’t find a lot on there is country music. Other than that you’ll find just about anything.
QUINN: So what would be the top two or three songs on your 25 most played list?
SLIFER: Oh, god. I’m not sure I want to answer that. [Laughter]
QUINN: You’re going to plead the 5th on music, huh? That’s fine. Mine would probably be embarrassing too ‘cause where I listen to music most is when I work out. You know, and when you’re working out you’re listening to different kind of music than you might want to admit to really liking.
SLIFER: Believe it or not for the last year or so I’ve been on a disco kick. For some reason just turning that on in the background when I’m at home working –
QUINN: The Bee Gees?
SLIFER: See, that’s why I don’t want to admit this stuff.
QUINN: No, and that’s fine. Barry Gibb he is definitely a Hall of Famer with 40 Top 40 hits, that’s remarkable. It’s all about creativity, right? I mean they’re just creative in a different way.
SLIFER: Yeah, I can sit for a long time with Santana playing or Steely Dan or I don’t know, it’s just I’m certainly not in the same genre as Millennials so there’s a different taste there.
QUINN: Okay. Well, let’s get to something maybe we’re both a little bit more comfortable talking about, maybe: Sci-fi. Are you into science fiction?
SLIFER: You know, I’m not a big science fiction fan.
QUINN: So if I were to say Star Wars or Star Trek would you have a big preference or neither or both or –
SLIFER: I like Star Trek over Star Wars.
QUINN: Okay. Good, you’ve redeemed yourself here. [Laughter] I’m a big Trekkie, because not that there’s anything wrong with Star Wars I think Star Wars is probably more science fantasy and Star Trek is more science engineering geek science.
SLIFER: Exactly. And I agree with you.
QUINN: And it was always the new gadget this week would be a what. So here is a good one for you: Who is the best fictional inventor of all time? I can give you a few suggestions. Emmet Brown from Back to the Future, Tony Stark as Iron Man, MacGyver, Q from James Bond, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.
SLIFER: Can’t stand MacGyver. Of that list I’d go with Tony Stark.
QUINN: That’s the one that I go with, although Emmet Brown time travel is pretty cool.
SLIFER: That’s a pretty good one there with the flux capacitor, you gotta give him credit on that one.
QUINN: Yeah, yeah. Now one of the questions I probably should have asked you back when you were talking about you like history is one I always like asking folks: If you could meet one famous historical person who would it be and why?
SLIFER: Famous historical person. It’s hard to narrow it down. Off the top of my head right now I’d say Thomas Jefferson because I’d really like to have a discussion with him about the patent system and his philosophy in it.
QUINN: Okay. And then the last question is coolest invention of all time?
SLIFER: Oh, that’s unfair to even ask me that.
QUINN: I know, I know because there are so many. But while you’re thinking about what might be an acceptable answer I’ll remind you – do know what Judge Giles Sutherland Rich’s answer to this question was?
SLIFER: Um-um (no).
QUINN: The disposable diaper.
SLIFER: I’ll tell you the one that I want. And I’ve wanted for a long, long time and I’m afraid I’m getting too old to even have the chance to enjoy it when it’s here. I’m going to use the word “jet pack” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a jet pack in the science fiction Buck Rogers type. But a personal flying, you know, pack that I could step into or sit on and fly around. That’s the coolest invention for me that I’m waiting to actually see. So I’ve actually starting seeing some working done on personal drones that are big enough to pick you up and move you around.
QUINN: Oh, that would be cool. So when that gets to Costco we’ll know that you’re a buyer.
SLIFER: Oh, absolutely. It won’t have to get to Costco before I’m a buyer. I just need to get a job first. With the Hall of Fame museum at the PTO, patents for Humanity and the work that’s being done with the Collegiate Inventors Competition, there are so many new inventions and so many that are recognized on an annual basis for their contributions. Everything from opening up the world through communications so that all areas of the world can see what’s going on and talk to each other, to improvements in biotechnology and drug treatments, there is just so much there that improves humanity that I cannot put a finger on one thing and saying boy that’s the coolest invention. But for me give me a jet pack and I’ll be a happy man.
QUINN: That’s fair enough. Well, you know, and I lied I want to ask you one more question. I know I said that was the last one but looking back, if we could get that Emmet Brown time machine and zap you back into your office say a generation ago when you were just starting out as a wet behind the ears attorney, what advice would you give Russ back then?
SLIFER: I wouldn’t. And let me explain why I wouldn’t. I think the journey is the most important part. And not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. Not knowing what job opportunity is waiting is very important and, you now, that’s kind of the way I’ve conduced my life. I knew I wanted to be a patent lawyer and I knew I wanted to go into the profession but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do or where it was going to take me. So if I had the opportunity to go back and tell myself, give myself a piece of advice with regard to the profession, I wouldn’t because I think the mystery is part of the attractiveness of moving through life. I wouldn’t, you know it sounds kind of corny but I wouldn’t – I’ve got no regrets I wouldn’t change anything.
QUINN: Yeah, you’d just make all different mistakes.
SLIFER: You’re absolutely correct. Be careful what you wish for or think that you’re going to change hoping to improve. You know, because I didn’t want to get us on the whole 101 case law but that’s kind of what, you know, things need to change but be careful on how it’s changed because it may create a whole world of problems that you weren’t expecting.
QUINN: That is true. Well, then on that note, I’ve kept you too long otherwise I would talk to you about 101. Maybe we could do a subsequent –
SLIFER: I think we could follow up another time. That’s fine.
QUINN: That would be great I’d love to. I really appreciate it, Russ, thank you very much. And please do keep us posted on where you decide to land. I’m sure you’ll have a number of suitors quite interested and best of luck to you.
SLIFER: Well, I hope so.