On Friday, October 2, 2009. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke appointed Sharon Barner to the post of deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter John Schmid reported yesterday that in a telephone interview with Barner she explained that she is a long time associate of President Barack Obama, knows him personally and has had ties to him throughout much of his political career. According to Schmid, Barner helped Obama raise funds for an Illinois state senate race; worked on a voter registration effort; and had him speak several times at symposiums that she organized. Schmid also reports that Barner will not be relocating to either Virginia or Washington, DC, but instead will remain in Chicago and somehow fulfill her responsibilities as Deputy Director of the USPTO via telecommuting. Unless the Patent Office is going to open up a regional branch office in Chicago I fail to understand how the Deputy Director can be Deputy Director from afar. The travel schedules of former Directors Rogan and Dudas raised many eyebrows, but at least they had some presence on campus at the Patent Office.
Secretary Locke said on Friday:
Sharon is a deeply qualified IP attorney and her experience is an important addition to the USPTO senior leadership as they reshape the office and work with Congress to pass comprehensive patent reform.
Barner does indeed have a wealth of experience in the intellectual property field, although as a litigator and as department head of the Intellectual Property Department at Foley & Lardner LLP in Chicago. According to the press release issued by the USPTO, Barner has worked with clients with respect to patent, trademark and copyright disputes and also in a diverse set of technical science fields such as genetically engineered foods, computers and satellites. I do have to wonder though how she will be able to work with senior USPTO leadership to reshape an office that she will be some 700 miles away from. Perhaps her expertise as a litigator is being sought to attempt to get patent reform through Congress, I don’t know. One has to wonder though given that Locke mentioned patent reform when addressing her experience and Senators Sessions and Hatch have in recent days started beating the drum once again regarding the need to make sure patent reform is sensible and does no harm. I suspect there is more than meets the eye here, and perhaps patent reform is not as dead as it was once believed to be. Maybe this is because the health care debates anticipated for the fall do not seem to be shaping up as debates at all and the radical reforms proposed seem to be getting more watered down by the day. Does this mean that attention will start to shift toward issues of lesser social importance and to issues of great importance for campaign donors? It is too early to tell, but patent reform opponents should keep a watchful eye.
The post that Barner will take, according to the USPTO press release, will be responsible for the office that “provides incentives to encourage innovation and technological advancement, and helps businesses protect their investments, promote their goods and safeguard against deception in the marketplace.” I can read the words well enough, but what exactly does this mean? It sounds like a lot of political doublespeak to me, you know the stuff that sounds great and highly specific but allows the reader to read in whatever they are predisposed to believe.
Maybe I am worrying here about nothing, and one thing that is for sure is Barner is highly qualified and does continue the trend of putting people in the know in high levels within the Patent Office. Over the past ten years, Barner has been featured as a top intellectual property lawyer in The National Law Journal, Black Enterprise Magazine, Diversity and the Bar and IP Law & Business and was recognized in the Illinois Super Lawyers for her intellectual property litigation work. Barner also regularly writes and lectures on several intellectual property topics including business counseling, patent litigation and risk management. There is no question she brings a wealth of intellectual property knowledge to the Patent Office, but I just have trouble understanding the remote, telecommuting nature of her appointment.
Time will tell how this plays out, but excuse me for being skeptical, not only about how the No. 2 person at the USPTO will not actually be at the USPTO, but about her close, fundraising ties with the President. I have to confess to being initially and enormously skeptical whenever a fundraiser is appointed to a top government position by either party. I understand that donating money is a right, I do it myself for the candidates I believe in and support. I also realize that raising money is a necessary evil to run for any level of political office. So I know my reservations are unfair, but I am human. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt though, particularly given Barner’s exceptional credentials, and particularly given that Kappos seems to be doing all the right things so far. Now if he would only withdraw the claims and continuations rules… but that is another story for another day.