Earlier today President Barack Obama nominated Michelle Lee to be the next Under Secretary for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Lee has been serving as Deputy Director of the USPTO since January 2014. Previously, she served at USPTO as the Director of the Silicon Valley Office from 2012 to 2013, a USPTO satellite office that still has not opened and will not open until early 2015.
Immediately prior to becoming Director of the un-opened Silicon Valley Patent Office, from 2003 to 2012, Lee was the Deputy General Counsel and Head of Patents and Patent Strategy at Google Inc. Google has been a outspoken critic of the U.S. patent system and based on their public positions and lobbying it is clear that the company would like to see software patents abolished and the patent system significantly curtailed. Recently other large Silicon Valley companies have split with Google and have started to work to promote the importance of patents as a tool for American innovation.
During the State of the Union address to Congress in January 2014, President Obama called for passage of a patent reform bill that would allow businesses to stay focused on innovation, not litigation. Today, in what was billed as part of the “Year of Action: Making Progress Through Executive Action,” the Obama Administration highlighted progress made on previously announced executive actions, and also announced three new actions to further respond to the President’s desire to increase patent quality.
Currently the President is under fire for Executive Actions, which is something that he railed against when he was Presidential Candidate Obama in 2008, but increasingly embraces. The criticism of the President with respect to Executive Action has heretofore been related to the fact that through executive fiat the President has single handedly re-written laws passed by Congress. Of course, there is no Constitutional authority for the President to re-write laws, but that hasn’t stopped him, at least with respect to the health care law.
No such re-writing of law seems to be implicated in the Executive Actions announced today relative to the patent system. In fact, the Executive Actions on the patent front are largely much ado about nothing and seem most intended to grab headlines. Still, there are a few items that make perfect sense, such as the USPTO working with industry to train patent examiners on cutting edge scientific developments and an expansion of the pro bono program. Still, other initiatives claim to address patent quality but I can’t for the life of me understand how that could be possible. How accurate ownership records kept after the issuance of a patent will help patent quality is a mystery to me, and unexplained by the White House.
Nothing fires up a legislative debate like an unexpected White House intervention, and if the Obama administration’s patent-policy announcements this month were aimed at generating headlines and Capitol Hill conversations, they succeeded. See White House Task Force on High Tech Patent Issues.
But if the intent was to steer the debate toward a balanced approach that would curb frivolous litigation without imperiling an intellectual-property protection system so key to nurturing innovation and job protection in this country, the effort appears to have failed.
Please don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of good reasons for the White House to get involved.
There are nearly half a dozen patent-related bills or proposals under consideration in the House and Senate, and the debate is sorely in need of facts and serious study. Much of the proposed legislation would make wholesale changes to the patent system, ignoring two centuries of clear evidence that strong patent protection promotes innovation, economic growth and a higher standard of living for Americans.
Yesterday the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) issued a final determination in one of the many ongoing proceedings between Apple and Samsung. These companies are battling each other in a variety of forums across the globe, which all together form the worldwide patent war over smartphones and tablets between the two tech giants. In this case the ITC found a violation of section 337 and issued a limited exclusion order prohibiting Apple from importing wireless communication devices, portable music and data processing devices, and tablet computers that infringe claims 75-76 and 82-84 of U.S. Patent No. 7,706,348. The ITC also issued a cease and desist order against Apple prohibiting the sale and distribution within the United States of articles that infringe claims 75-76 and 82-84 of the ’348 patent. No violation of U.S. Patent Nos. 7,486,644, 7,450,114, and 6,771,980 was found.
Which Apple products are implicated? The ITC determined that Samsung proved that AT&T models of the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3, iPad 3G, and iPad 2 3G infringe the asserted claims of the ’348 patent.
The ITC determination is now final, and the investigation is terminated. Apple has the opportunity to appeal the ITC final determination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. But there is also another avenue for Apple, which could essentially nullify the ITC determination. Pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 1337(j), the President has 60 days to review the ITC determination. If the President disapproves of the ruling for policy reasons he has the authority to nullify the determination. The statute specifically explains that upon disapproval of the President an ITC determination “shall have no force or effect.”
There is no doubt that the Obama position will be loved by Google and other Silicon Valley technology giants that despise the patent system. Given the revolving door between the Obama Administration and Google, the long-term close relationship between President Obama and Google (see here, here and here), and the fact that patent issues don’t resonate with John Q. Public, it seems likely that the President stepping in now to allow him to tout that he is engaged with issues of importance in the minds of tech giants who will be asked for large checks later this week.
But what executive action could the President really take that would make a difference?
Today the White House announced major steps to improve incentives for future innovation in high tech patents, a key driver of economic growth and good paying American jobs. The White House issued five executive actions and seven legislative recommendations designed to protect innovators from frivolous litigation and ensure the highest-quality patents in our system. Additionally, the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers released a report, Patent Assertion and U.S. Innovation, detailing the challenges posed and necessity for bold legislative action.
In 2011, the President signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA), a landmark piece of legislation designed to help make our patent system more efficient and reliable. As technology evolves more rapidly than ever, we must ensure our patent system keeps pace. As President Obama said in February, “our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go. What we need to do is pull together additional stakeholders and see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws.”
The AIA put in place new mechanisms for post-grant review of patents and other reforms to boost patent quality. Meanwhile, court decisions clarifying the scope of patentability and guidelines implementing these decisions diminish the opportunity to game the patent and litigation systems. Nevertheless, innovators continue to face challenges from Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), companies that, in the President’s words “don’t actually produce anything themselves,” and instead develop a business model “to essentially leverage and hijack somebody else’s idea and see if they can extort some money out of them.” These entities are commonly known as “patent trolls.” Likewise, the so-called “Smartphone Patent Wars” have ballooned in recent years and today, several major companies spend more on patent litigation and defensive acquisition than on research and development.
The White House website explains that it is the right of the people to petition the government, a right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Of course, the idea of petitioning the President is not something that is new, but the ability to use the Internet to create an online petition that may be considered and responded to by the Federal Government is indeed quite new. Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration, known for savvy use of the Internet both in governance and campaigning, pioneered this unique approach to making government reachable by the masses.
With this in mind, last week, a petition was created to petition the White House to take down the website Jerk.com. To date the petition has unfortunately not received many votes. Earlier today I was the 28th e-signer of the petition. My guess is that this is due to lack of publicity more so than anything else. Once people learn of the petition my guess is that the signatures will accumulate quickly, but will there be enough time to reach the 100,000 signature threshold by February 22, 2013?
The first order of business, however, is to get the required 150 signatures so that the petition will be searchable on WhiteHouse.gov. To view and/or sign the petition visit We the People.
The U.S. Patent Office as it looked prior to the Civil War.
The Old Patent Office is one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Washington, DC. Presently, it hosts the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. For those who are not from DC or familiar with the city, allow me to explain that obtaining directions to the Old Patent Office on your electronic device of choice may be difficult because there is no street address. At least I have never been able to find a street address for the building. The Old Patent Office Building takes up an entire city block in DC, located on the corner of Eighth and F Streets, roughly between the White House and Capitol.
Yes, the Patent Office was once upon a time thought to be so important to our new nation that this ornate building was located between the White House and the Capitol. Yet today there are forces throughout academia and elsewhere that would rather see the entire U.S. patent system dismantled. Oh how we have departed from the views of Madison, Jefferson and the other founders who thought a strong patent system would be central to the success of the new nation. That, however, is a story for another day.
The Old Patent Office Building has had a storied history, which is commensurate with what our early leaders, such as Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln thought of the patent system. In addition to housing the Patent Office from 1842 to 1932, in 1865 the Old Patent Office hosted President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in the model room. This marked the first time that a government building was used for the inaugural ball. See Inaugural Ball, from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
President Obama delivering State of the Union Address, January 2012.
You would have to be living under a rock not to know that President Barack Obama was reelected last night in what really can only be characterized as a resounding victory. While I went on the record endorsing Governor Mitt Romney, rather than feeling too bad, I at least have the reassurance that the U.S. patent system will remain in capable hands for the foreseeable future.
Even in my endorsement of Governor Romney I discussed that it is undeniable that the USPTO is run better now than at any time during the Bush Administration. So while the Republicans in the patent community are no doubt disappointed about the results of the election last night, the consolation prize is that the federal agency that handles matters in our little niche will be competently run moving forward. So there is a silver lining.
Of course, there have been rumors flying around that David Kappos will not remain at the USPTO for long even if President Obama did win reelection. No one knows for sure what will happen, and frankly who could blame Kappos if he decided that 4 years was enough and he wants to return to the private sector. Still, if and when Kappos would make a decision to return to the private sector I would be surprised. As far as I can see he remains the highly energetic, extremely motivated, dedicated servant of the patent system that he was when he first assumed the mantle of Director in August 2009.
President Barack Obama (left), Governor Mitt Romney (right).
I am presently in San Francisco, California teaching the last live course for the PLI patent bar review course this year. As I was in my hotel room this morning getting ready for the day news coverage showed President Obama at a rally where supporters were screaming the familiar “4 more years” chant that you hear every time an incumbent President is running for reelection. The coverage then turned to Governor Romney in Wisconsin, where the crowd started chanting “4 more days.”
Then when I fired up my laptop to check e-mails and approve comments from first time posters and those otherwise caught up by our comment spam software, I came across a comment from a patent attorney who explained why he had finally decided to vote for President Obama — the Patent Office is working very well.
The comment to that article really didn’t fit with the broader content or theme of the article on which it was left. As frequent readers know I always try and encourage relevant comments that don’t go to far off tangent so as to keep the discussion focused and on point. So I didn’t approve that comment there but reached out to the commenter to let them know I would be posting this article.