Michelle Lee on patent quality, IPR and trade agreements


On Wednesday, February 11, 2015, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Lee, who is the Deputy Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The interview took place at the National Press Club and was a part of a Technology Policy Institute program titled Patents in Theory and Practice: Implications for Reform. You can watch the interview below.

During our interview Lee explains that she is supportive of expanding trade agreements currently under consideration in Congress, that she looks forward to working on patent quality and receiving feedback from stakeholders on how the Office can better address patent quality, and she explained that the Office was pleased with the recent Federal Circuit ruling in In re Cuozzo Speed Technologies, which is the first appeal of a final decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) in an Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceeding.

As many will no doubt already know, Lee is currently the President’s nominee for the vacant position of Director of the USPTO, which also carries with it the title of Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property. She has already had two largely uneventful confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee (see here and here). It seems virtual certainty that she will soon be confirmed. Still, it is rather extraordinary for a nominee to open themselves up to questioning in this manner with a confirmation vote still pending.

My conversation with Lee was billed as a fireside chat, which took place during the luncheon at the end of the program. Those familiar with other interviews I’ve done no doubt know that my discussions with industry newsmakers can be quite long. In this forum the plan was to keep my Q&A with Lee to approximately 20 minutes so there would be time for questions from the audience. Of course, things went a bit longer than that, almost exactly 27 minutes, but Lee did stay for 11 minutes of Q&A with the audience.

My hope is that in the coming months I will be able to do a longer interview and profile of Director Lee. Stay tuned.


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5 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    February 14, 2015 01:29 pm

    Thank you PS DIP,

    I do try to put Greg’s stuff into perspective whenever I can. He has a lot of interesting views, often tinged with more than just a little bit of passion. I appreciate your added perspective.

  • [Avatar for PS DIP]
    PS DIP
    February 14, 2015 08:45 am


    I have not read Greg’s email, but the switch to the CPC has been anything but abrupt. The USPC spent twelve years slowly being degraded and devalued. Three or four years ago, the USPTO and EPO agreed to merge the USPC and ECLA into the CPC system. The agreement kicked in January 2013 and for two entire years the switch-over has been occurring.

    Now, January 2015, it is official. During the two year transition, examiners were given extra time to search in both the CPC and the USPC. An incredible amount of other time was dedicated to this transition. We both know that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. However, the USPTO has done a pretty good job of sticking the feeding tube down the examiner throats on this one.

    Regarding distance between examiners and classification expertise, no question that this has occurred. But this occurred twelve years ago. The days of the primaries sitting around together and creating the new subclasses by manually categorizing all the art are long behind us. The volume of art is too high and none of the good primaries work in Alexandria anyway. But this issue has nothing to do with the USPC to CPC switch. (Most of the reclassifications between 2000 and 2013 were done by outside contractors and not USPTO employees anyways. Some of the contractors were in fact European Patent Offices!)

    Btw, all the US art is still classified in the USPC. Non-US art has not classified by USPC since 1994 and examiners must use the CPC and IPC systems to find this art. The attempt is to switch from a three classification system (USPC, ECLA, IPC) to a two classification system (CPC, IPC) which increases efficiency and should increase knowledge of the more limited dataset, especially since CPC is derived from IPC. (There is a loss in “double checking” functionality, but text based searching and citation analysis have stepped into that role.)

    P.S. Sorry about the alphabet soup nature of this post. This is the language of searching which is my first language. 🙂

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    February 13, 2015 09:52 am

    Also on point to the comment by “ysaa,” an email by Greg Aharonian this past week speaks of an alarming and immediate degradation of examiner capability.

    Greg on Feb. 10, spoke of the change – and consequences – that the Patent Office has incurred with a abrupt switch in classification systems, from USPC to CPC.

    I am not knowledgeable on the matter, so cannot ascertain whether Greg’s lament is fully, partially or not at all justified.

    However, that such a change could be undertaken and (if true) that such a change is further distancing examiners from having subject matter expertise, than we have (yet another) indication that the examination role in the Office is simply out of control.

    It appears that not only is Congress is not minding the store, but that no one in the store is minding the store.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    February 13, 2015 09:44 am

    All the more puzzling then, is why so much effort, labeled as “reform,” does not address what “ysaa” points out – and what is clearly the best bang for the buck for all involved.

    I have to wonder, why has this not been a focus?

  • [Avatar for yet still another anonymous]
    yet still another anonymous
    February 13, 2015 08:20 am

    As a funny foreigner looking in, it seems to me that one immediate way to improve patent quality would be to improve the quality of examiner. For every conscientious, competent examiner, there appears to be several total incompetents who seem to have difficulty even with the language. The technical incompetence sometimes seems to be matched by a quite astounding level of dishonesty – one knows that no sensible person could have reached the particular conclusion. That the world’s pre-eminent technological powerhouse has such a patent office indicates that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark…