Last week at an event hosted by the Global Intellectual Property Center of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., USPTO Director Andrei Iancu delivered his first major policy speech. Saying emphatically, and believably, that in order for the Trump Administration to deliver on the mission to create sustained economic growth the U.S. patent system cannot continue, and will not continue down the same path.
There was no warning for those in attendance that Iancu’s speech would be a major policy speech; I know because I was there. After the speech was over there was a buzz, and the common reaction was that it sounded good but that it was going to be important to re-read the speech to see what was actually said, versus what was heard. Such reaction was a nod to the political reality that sometimes what one hears at an event, although identical to the transcript, comes across quite different in writing.
After reading the transcript of Director Iancu’s speech it seems clear that the USPTO is preparing the industry for change. Indeed, during the Question and Answer segment, which was not transcribed, Director Iancu was pushed by questions regarding the uneven application of patent eligibility standards by patent examiners. “We need help,” explained Bob Stoll, former Commissioner for Patents and current partner with Drinker Biddle. “When can we expect the PTO to do something?” Director Iancu at first said soon, to which a bit more exasperated response came from Stoll: “We need help now!” Director Iancu then responded to Stoll’s question, without hedging, saying the PTO would have something to release on 101 within several weeks.
As hopeful as all of this should seem to inventors and patent owners, perhaps the most insightful part of Director Iancu’s recent policy speech can be found in one direct and one indirect reference to two inventors who over the past several years have rather inexplicably become the face of what it means to be a patent troll — the Wright Brothers.
Ask those who have little regard for inventors and no respect for U.S. patents about the Wright Brothers and you will rather directly be told they were patent trolls (see here and here). You might even be told that what they accomplished wasn’t particularly remarkable at all, and it was only a matter of time before someone would have invented the airplane anyway.
These comments about the Wright Brothers, the individuals who invented the first successfully powered airplane, are what passes for thoughtful and insightful commentary in some circles. The Wright Brothers were not patent trolls, and it has been frustrating, to say the least, to listen to those within the industry re-write history and vilify the Wright Brothers, describing them as if they were public enemy No. 1 simply because they had the audacity to have invented the airplane and sought U.S. patents.
Here is what Director Iancu had to say about the Wright Brothers:
At my swearing-in, I remarked that through the doors of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office comes our future. And indeed, it does, and it always did. We must celebrate that. From Thomas Edison to the Wright Brothers, from Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer to Steve Jobs, American inventors have fueled the imagination of our people for generations. We are a pioneering people who overcome large obstacles in order to realize our dreams and create prosperity. Inventors help make dreams reality, and American invention changes the world. Indeed, with American patents, humans made light, began to fly, treated disease, and enabled instant communications across the globe from tiny devices in our pockets.
It is good to again hear the Wright Brothers spoken of as champions of innovation, rather than villains.
We most certainly do need to celebrate great inventors responsible for fueling imagination for future generations. That is how and why future generations aspire to become inventors. There should also be no harm in recognizing the tremendous contributions of the American patent system, which when properly calibrated incentivizes inventors to attempt the impossible and investors to provide the capital necessary to realize those dreams.
All of the signs are pointing in a direction that innovators and patent owners have been hoping, and within a matter of weeks we are likely to hear more about what the Iancu agenda for the American patent system will look like.