USPTO leader New Year's resolution: improve patent quality

Issuing patents that are undeserving or too broad puts a big burden on businesses

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Michelle Lee, a former lawyer at Google, to head the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Michelle Lee, a former lawyer at Google, to head the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Improving the quality of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will be a top priority there in 2015, the office's acting director said.

Michelle Lee, now the USPTO's deputy director but nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as director, will soon launch a new patent quality initiative, she said Thursday. The initiative, with details coming soon, will work toward excellence in customer service and in measuring patent quality.

Patent lawsuits can costs millions of dollars to defend, Lee said during a discussion at think tank the Brookings Institute. USPTO critics have long raised concerns about patent quality, particularly for software and business methods.

"I've seen, in fact, patents that should not have issued, or that have issued with a scope that's too broad," said Lee, a former patent attorney, engineer and computer programmer. "If there's abusive litigation or a patent that should not have been issued there's ... a cost to our businesses."

As part of the patent quality initiative, the USPTO will solicit ideas from employees and will consider increasing resources, review of patent examiners' work and new employee training, she said. The USPTO is also planning a two-day patent quality summit with patent office customers involved.

Lee on Thursday also announced a new deputy commissioner position to focus solely on patent quality.

The USPTO is in a better position to tackle long-standing criticism of patent quality after the U.S. Congress passed the America Invents Act in 2011, Lee said. That law gave the USPTO the authority to set the rates for its user fees, and keep an operating reserve, allowing the office more control over its own budget, Lee noted.

"For too long, due to uncertain and limited financial resources, the USPTO has had to make due with less," she said. "But that is no longer the case."

The USPTO had a record backlog of about 750,000 unexamined patent applications in January 2009, but it has managed to reduce it by 20 percent since then, Lee said. That effort on the backlog, while still ongoing, will allow Lee to focus on patent quality, hiring new employees and giving them the tools they need, including up-to-date IT systems, to examine patents, she said.

One audience member asked Lee about the label of "patent troll" that critics pin on some inventors who don't commercialize their inventions. Some critics also use the term to describe patent-holding companies that file multiple infringement lawsuits.

Lee said she doesn't "find it helpful" to use the label. "What we need to focus on is behavior," she said. "We need to focus on solutions that curtail abusive patent litigation. If you're an innovator, and you create and you invent something, and you file for a patent on it, it should not matter what your business model is."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags intellectual propertyMichelle LeepatentU.S. Patent and Trademark OfficelegalBrookings InstitutgovernmentBarack Obama

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