Obama still committed to patent reform, nominee says in speech

The Obama administration is still committed to patent reform legislation, President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said Thursday. 

Michelle Lee, who currently leads the office, said patent reform's absence from the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night does not reflect a change in priorities for the administration.  

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During an appearance at the Brookings Institution, Lee pointed back to earlier statements by Obama, who has called for legislation to rein in so-called patent trolls. 

"It is not an indication that it is any less of a priority," Lee said. "I mean, the president has stated that more legislative patent reform is needed, and it is a priority of the administration. It is that simple. He has many important priorities to discuss in the State of the Union." 

During last year’s speech, Obama mentioned the need for reform in a single sentence. Some advocates for legislation, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), expressed disappointed that the issue did not make it into Tuesday's speech. 

"For patents to get two mentions two years in a row would be fantastic, but the president obviously has many competing demands on his time," Lee added. "But it is not at all a reflection of his priority, or change in priorities.”

Observers see patent reform as increasingly likely this Congress now that Republicans control both chambers. Legislation passed the House last Congress but stalled in the Democratically controlled Senate. 

Lee, a former lawyer and patent head for Google, currently serves as deputy director for the patent office and was nominated last year to lead the office. She has the responsibilities of director, however, since the agency has not had a confirmed leader since January 2013.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its second nomination hearing for her on Thursday. 

Lee too called for legislation to help thwart companies that make a profit from buying patents to license to others or by negotiating settlements after threatening patent infringement lawsuits — entities commonly known as patent trolls. But Lee said it is unhelpful to define the term. 

"It means different things to different people," she said. "I think what we need to focus on is the behavior. We need to focus on solutions that curtail abusive patent litigation. And if you are an innovator, and you create and invent something and you file a patent on it, it shouldn't matter what your business model is.”

She did not mention specifics on legislation, but pointed back to proposals in the last Congress. Congressional action needs to follow a holistic approach, she said, and take into account the changing patent landscape through the courts and executive branch. 

During the appearance Thursday, Lee also announced the patent office is creating a new executive position aimed at improving the quality of patents that it issues. Low quality or overly broad patents can cost companies millions of dollars in litigation. For startups, Lee said, that can take up a huge percentages of their capital.

Valencia Martin Wallace will take the new position as deputy commissioner for patent quality. Martin Wallace is currently the deputy commissioner for patent operations. 

Lee said the office would also be putting a notice in the Federal Register requesting public input on a broader push to increase patent quality. The office is planning an upcoming summit on the issue, as well as exploring ways to use "big data" to help improve the quality of the patents.