Senate approves former Google executive for patent chief

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The Senate on Monday approved a former Google executive to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has been without a confirmed leader for more than two years.

Michelle Lee, who has led the agency for months as deputy director, was approved by voice vote. She will also serve as the under secretary of Commerce for intellectual property.

The Senate also unanimously approved Daniel Henry Marti to be the White House’s intellectual property enforcement coordinator, a position that has been vacant since August 2013.

{mosads}The nominations were approved without fanfare, as not a single senator spoke about the nominations during the 30 minutes of allotted debate time.

Lee and Marti were both nominated last year and underwent a first round of testimony before the Judiciary Committee in December. The Senate ran out of time to confirm them, and both nominations were pushed into the new Congress.

Lee will take over the office at a time when patent litigation reform is high on the congressional agenda. Bipartisan leaders in both chambers are working on legislation to rein in so-called patent trolls, after reform died in the Senate last year.

She said during her confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee that she was open to legislation that would curb “patent trolls,” companies that are accused of filing frivolous lawsuits to extract settlements from tech companies.

Though tech companies praised Lee’s nomination, she caught criticism for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) for not getting into specifics about patent reform. The Utah Republican backs a strong fee shifting provision that would require the losing party in patent litigation to pay the winner’s legal fees.

Lee recently started a series of initiatives aimed at cutting down on vague or low-quality patents that have been partly blamed for an increase in litigation. During her testimony before the Judiciary Committee, she also addressed the agency’s telework program, which came under fire last summer over allegations that some employees were abusing it.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who now leads the Judiciary Committee as chairman, suggested that employees must be punished if behavior at the agency was to change.

“If there is abuse of the nature we are talking about [and] heads don’t roll, nothing really changes,” he said.

For nearly a decade, Lee served as a lawyer and leader on patent policy for Google. In 2012, she moved to the Patent Office, where she started a satellite office in Silicon Valley. She holds degrees in both law and computer science.

The Senate also approved by voice vote two members of the Farm Credit Administration Board: Jeffery Hall and Dallas Tonsager.

Tags Chuck Grassley Orrin Hatch

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