Earlier today the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion with Michelle Lee, the current Deputy Director for the United States Patent and Trademark Office and also the current nominee for the position of Director of the Office. The moderator of the event was Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies for Brookings.
At the outset Lee explained that the USPTO recognizes “the extreme importance of issuing patents in a timely manner.” She then went on to recognize why it is important to obtain patent protection, “if you are entering a market that is highly competitive you need the assurance that you will have protection as you go up against very steep and often times well funded competition.” Lee would again go on to then say that it is critically important for the USPTO to issue patents promptly.
She then pivoted to address the other side of the issue, which relates to issuing patents that should never have been issued in the first place. Lee explained: “I’ve see the effect of patents that should not have issued, or that have issued with a scope that is too broad. There is a also a cost associated with that as well… On average a start-up may get between $10 to $15 million to last over a number of years, and there are statistics that indicate that patent litigation can cost cost well over $1 million. So you can see if there is abusive litigation or a patent that should not have issued, there is a cost to our businesses.”
Lee also explained that the USPTO is in a much better position financially as the result of the America Invents Act (AIA), which created a reserve fund and in conjunction with working closely with appropriators the Patent Office is able to keep the fees it collects. “For the first time the PTO is now able to more than make due,” Lee explained.
Lee also previewed a new USPTO quality initiative, built on 3 prongs: (1) excellence in prosecution services, (2) excellence in customer service; and (3) excellence in patent quality. Lee explained that the Office will specifically evaluate the value of interviews, what other Patent Offices are doing that the USPTO can adopt, and also working better with “big data,” so that the USPTO can take that information back to examiners and produce better training modules based on what the Office is specifically seeing. Lee also said there will soon be a new Federal Register Notice on patent quality, and the USPTO will hold a two-day conference on quality.
Lee also unveiled a new senior executive position in the agency that will be solely dedicated to coordinating all of the agency’s efforts to ensure patent quality and to guide new initiatives, including both short term and long term initiatives. “I wanted one person who’s one job, day in and day out, is to focus on quality,” Lee explained. Toward that end, Valencia Martin-Wallace has been named to the newly created position of Deputy Commissioner for Patent Quality.
Martin-Wallace (pictured right) is a graduate of Howard University, where she earned a BS in Electrical Engineering and The George Washington University, where she earned a JD. She has been with the USPTO for over 22 years, first joining the Office as a patent examiner. In 1999, she went on to become a Supervisory Patent Examiner (SPE) the area of electronic gaming devices and electronic educational devices and then later as a SPE in the networking technologies. Martin-Wallace has also served on details at the Office of Human Resources (OHR) as the Deputy Director and Acting Director of OHR and the Office of Patent Training as a Class Manager. In 2008 she was promoted to the position of Technology Center Director and has also served as the Executive Lead over the Patents Ombudsman Program. In 2011, Martin-Wallace was promoted to the position of Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations.
Lee also talked about the importance of international patent protection for U.S. companies, discussing the new realities presented by the Internet age where a sale is as likely to occur outside the U.S. as it is to occur from within the U.S. “American companies are increasingly looking to protect their inventions in multiple countries and they need to rely upon quick, cost effective and efficient protections.” Lee says that the USPTO will continue to “work with other countries to ensure that they share our IP values on patents, copyrights and trade secrets; that their systems, judicial systems, customs, law enforcement and their laws respect and protect intellectual property rights, not only of their own domestic companies, but of foreign companies.” Lee then pivoted to briefly discuss harmonization, pointing out that as the world becomes more and more global companies are applying for patent rights in multiple jurisdictions, “more can be done to streamline… to reduce the costs,” she explained. Although she did not specifically use the term, it seemed her comments were more directed at procedural harmonization as opposed to substantive harmonization.
Lee was also asked about patent reform and recent Supreme Court cases. Not surprisingly, Lee largely dodged this question, which is understandable given that her nomination is still pending in Committee. Truthfully, she is keeping a rather active public profile during this process. In most instances those who have nominations pending completely shun speaking in public for fear of saying something that may upset the process. With patent reform and the Supreme Court being such hot button issues in the industry, Lee proceeded cautiously explaining only that she believes additional reform is needed, but that reform needs to take into account the changing realities of the patent market and industry. This is the line she has used repeatedly in recent months, and while testifying during her confirmation hearings. She did not directly address the question of recent Supreme Court cases.
Finally, while it did not come up during Lee’s presentation at Brookings, the USPTO has also selected Dr. Christal Sheppard to be the new director of the USPTO’s Detroit satellite office. Sheppard has been a member of the agency’s Patent Public Advisory Committee and she most recently has been an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska College of Law. Prior to joining the University of Nebraska, Dr. Sheppard was the chief counsel on patents and trademarks for the Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives. Dr. Sheppard was also employed at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President; the law firm of Foley & Lardner, and served in the Office of the General Counsel of the United States International Trade Commission. Dr. Sheppard also holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, as well as a J.D. from Cornell University Law School.
You can watch the entire event below, starting at 14:23 into the recording.