Obama taps former Google executive for chief of patent office

President Obama on Thursday nominated Michelle Lee to lead the Patent and Trademark Office, seeking to fill a seat that has been empty for more than a year.

Lee, a former Google executive, had been the deputy director of the PTO since January.

{mosads}The agency has gone without a permanent director since David Kappos stepped down in February 2013.

In a statement announcing Lee’s nomination, along with other selections, Obama said that he was confident she would “serve the American people well” and looked forward to working with her.

Lee was Google’s deputy general counsel and head of patent issues until 2012. More recently, she served as the head of the patent office’s Silicon Valley office before she was appointed to be the agency’s deputy director.

In a statement immediately after the nomination, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Lee has been “thoughtful and respectful of the diverse perspectives across the patent community, and a valuable resource to the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

The White House had previously been eyeing Phil Johnson, a top executive at the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, but pulled that name over the summer amid opposition on Capitol Hill. Critics in the tech industry had blasted Johnson for his opposition to patent reform in Congress.  

Lee’s nomination is a victory for the tech sector, which has been struggling to combat patent “trolls” that companies say file aggressive lawsuits in order to profit from the settlements.

“Anytime somebody from that industry gets in, other industries are going to view that as a leg up,” one patent lobbyist said. “People on the West Coast are going to herald it.”

Lee testified in Congress earlier this year and earned a warm reception from both sides of the aisle in what some considered to be an audition for the top PTO spot.

“My record for endorsements is dismal so I won’t dare call this an endorsement because it might end up being a liability, but we appreciate very much the exchange we have enjoyed with you during your tenure there,” Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), head of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on intellectual property, said at the July hearing.

Lee would need to be approved by the Senate in order to take office. If she passes that hurdle, she would be the first woman director of the patent office in its history.

— This story was updated at 6:19 p.m.

Tags Michelle Lee United States Patent and Trademark Office

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