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Lee nomination as USPTO director confirmed

President Barack Obama has announced his intention to nominate Michelle Lee as undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the USPTO. She had been performing the functions and duties of the USPTO director in her position of deputy director

Lee was appointed as the deputy director of the USPTO in December last year, following Teresa Rea leaving the role the previous month. She was previously director of the USPTO’s Silicon Valley satellite office. She is a former deputy general counsel for Google, where she worked between 2003 and 2012, and was the company’s first head of patents and patent strategy.

The USPTO has been without a director since January 2013 when the popular David Kappos stood down. Rea had been acting director before she left the USPTO.

The nomination ends months of speculation and criticism about the lack of a director at the USPTO. During the summer rumours suggested Phil Johnson, senior vice-present for intellectual property at Johnson & Johnson, was going to be nominated. This was a popular choice among patent practitioners, but supporters of patent reform strongly opposed the potential appointment. Reports suggested the White House dropped the idea as a result.

The appointment needs to be confirmed by the Senate, however. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a prominent player in efforts to pass patent reform, congratulated Lee on the appointment.

“During her tenure as Deputy Director, Ms Lee has worked to reduce the backlog in patent applications, improve examination processes, and implement the post-grant review programs created by the 2011 Leahy-Smith America Invents Act to improve patent quality,” he said in a statement. “I have found Ms Lee to be thoughtful and respectful of the diverse perspectives across the patent community, and a valuable resource to the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

The Innovation Alliance also welcomed the appointment.

“In her time at USPTO, she has demonstrated a nuanced appreciation of the complexity of the innovation ecosystem in the United States,” said Brian Pomper, executive director of the Innovation Alliance. “Ms Lee understands, as she recently stated, that policymakers must strive in the patent system to ‘achiev[e] the right balance between curbing litigation abuses and maintaining a robust patent enforcement regime.’

“We look forward to working with Ms Lee to achieve that balance and ensure that the patent system continues to be a force for innovation and job creation in the United States for entities of all sizes.”

If confirmed, Lee would be the first woman and first Asian Pacific American to serve as director of the office. Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) congratulated Lee on the nomination.

Congresswoman Judy Chu, CAPAC chair said: “CAPAC endorsed Michelle as a candidate for this position because we recognised that with over two decades of experience in property and patent law, she would make an outstanding leader in promoting and protecting our nation’s intellectual property. I applaud President Obama for recognizing Michelle’s qualifications and for his commitment to advancing women of color in leadership roles. I urge my Senate colleagues to move quickly on her confirmation.”

The Coalition for Patent Fairness commented that Lee would be an outstanding leader for the USPTO. “Only Congress can stop patent trolls from continuing to abuse the patent litigation system to extort undeserved settlements from businesses of all sizes,” said Matt Tanielian Tanielian, executive director at the coalition, “but confirming a PTO director of Michelle Lee’s background and experience is an important and necessary step in strengthening our nation’s patent system.”

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