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Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Talks Patent Reform and CES

CTA Staff
Michelle K. Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), whose mission is to promote innovation through intellectual property, will be attending her second, and final, CES as Director.

We had a chance to speak with her in anticipation of her remarks and get some additional insight on her thoughts on what the USPTO can do for startups, the importance of STEM education, patent quality, and the future debate around abusive patent litigation.

The USPTO has recently taken on a number of initiatives to make the patent process more accessible to startups. Can you discuss how these initiatives came about, and what successes the USPTO has had in building stronger relationships with the startup community?

Back in 2015 we kicked off our Startup Partnership Initiative. Through this initiative, we are reaching the startup community nationwide and empowering young, high-growth businesses by listening to the questions and concerns of startup community, brainstorming and cultivating programs and resources tailored to their unique needs, and ensuring startups have the knowledge they need to best use intellectual property as a tool to help achieve their business goals. Entrepreneurs and startups should know that the USPTO offers a wealth of resources to help them navigate our intellectual property system to achieve their business goals. For example, we offer our Patent, Trademarks, and Inventor Assistance Centers which answer questions about the patent and trademark process, four new regional offices (in Denver, Dallas, Silicon Valley and Detroit) to ensure that our innovators and inventors have easier and closer access to a wider range of resources offered by the USPTO, and our Pro Bono assistance for startups who may have limited resources but recognize the importance for intellectual property protection.

But, that’s not all we’re doing. The USPTO recognizes that in an increasingly global marketplace, a startup’s first sale or first client can just as easily be in Shanghai as in Las Vegas. And all companies, including and perhaps especially startups, need to start thinking internationally from day one. As we all know though, the international landscape for business varies greatly from country to country. So, to make this process easier for startups, we are working with our international counterparts to ensure your intellectual property is protected overseas and that there are legal remedies available when it may be compromised. This will allow American innovators to sell their products and services abroad with the security and confidence they deserve.

This is critically important, as the entire U.S. economy today relies on some form of intellectual property — such as patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Across the country, IP-intensive industries support at least 40 million jobs and more than one-third of our gross domestic product. Whether you are a backyard tinkerer, a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company or a budding author, your intellectual property is a driving force in this new knowledge based economy. With our country’s economy fueled by innovation, we consider it a top priority at the USPTO to ensure our inventors and innovators have the tools and protections they need to succeed.

In 2015 you launched the All In STEM program to encourage more women to pursue careers in technology. What still needs to be done to ensure that people of all genders and backgrounds are properly represented in the tech industry?

To succeed in our knowledge-based economy, where good ideas and the entrepreneurial spirit are keys to success, we must ensure that we are encouraging and empowering all of our talent across all demographics. In less than 10 years, our country will need 1.7 million more engineers and computer scientists. Today, some of our most innovative companies cannot hire the technical talent they need to meet their business goals. We must inspire our young people on the promise and excitement of STEM for our country to maintain its preeminence in the global knowledge economy, ensuring job growth and our economic competitiveness.

We have made this a priority at USPTO through our “All in STEM” initiative. Through All in STEM, we are working with other government agencies and organizations dedicated to advancing girls and women, as well others from under-represented groups, in STEM studies and careers. As part of this initiative, USPTO has engaged in a partnership with Invent Now, with whom we run an annual summer program called Camp Invention that reaches more than 100,000 kids, boys, girls and kids from under-privileged backgrounds, each and every year. Taught by an elite group of STEM instructors, Camp Invention programs feature lessons on STEM skills, as well as basics on patents and trademarks and even a bit about entrepreneurship.

But, there is always more to be done, and each one of us at CES can play a role. All of us can help in this important endeavor to encourage and inspire more of today’s youth to invent, tinker, make, build and start companies based upon their ideas — our economy and society will be even stronger as a result.

Throughout your term as Director of USPTO, you have been committed to improving efficiency and patent quality. Can you discuss some of the successes, and challenges, you have had in implementing reforms at the USPTO?

In 2015, we launched our Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative. This is the most comprehensive and concerted focus on improving the quality patents issued by the USPTO in recent memory. We were (and are) open to all ideas on how to enhance patent quality — from big to small, from changes to how we review patent applications to IT improvements, from how we measure patent quality to how we search for what inventions have been made in the past.

We’ve solicited extensive input from the public and our own team, and taking into account all this input, we undertook nearly a dozen or so ambitious initiatives to help us improve the accuracy, clarity and consistency of the patents we issue. This is important, as a patent that is accurately issued and clear provides (i) its owner with more certain rights, and (ii) the public with better information to make informed business decisions, including how to allocate precious and limited research and development resources. Our Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative is already delivering results now and will continue to do so increasingly in the future.

For many in CTA, the concern about abusive patent litigation is an ongoing concern. What are your thoughts on this area, both on the current state of affairs and where you see the discussion heading?

Abusive patent litigation, whether by the patent asserter or defendant, is a concern to all. Certainly innovators, litigants, the courts, legislatures and administrative agencies such as the USPTO, have a vested interest to see that sensible steps are taken to curtail abusive patent litigation, whether by plaintiff or defendant. At the USPTO, we are doing our part to ensure that we are delivering high-quality patents with clear records that help give public notice to what a patent covers and what it does not. Additionally, through our Patent Trial and Appeal Board we are doing our part to make sure that the patents in the system are the ones that should be.

As I look ahead, I foresee that legislative patent reform will continue to be discussed in Congress, though those conversations will likely occur later in the term. I imagine any legislative patent reform will likely be more targeted, rather than the comprehensive reforms we’ve seen in prior Congresses. I would hope any legislative proposal will take into account the numerous positive changes that have occurred recently in the patent system including through the courts, including on attorneys’ fees, pleading requirements and discovery limits, and those initiatives at USPTO that I just highlighted.

Michelle K. Lee will be speaking at CES 2017 on the panel Trolls and Tech: How to Fix Patents.