On the Record with USPTO Director Michelle Lee


On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, I had the opportunity to go on the record with Michelle Lee, who is Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

During our 30-minute conversation, we discussed a wide range of topics, including the release of the Commerce Department’s Copyright White Paper, which among other things recommends expanding eligibility for statutory damages in certain copyright infringement actions. We also discussed Lee’s recent visit to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the power outage that brought down USPTO electronic filing systems, the Office’s patent quality initiative, the new patent classification system, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), and more. For the full transcript of our interview, please see An Exclusive Interview with Michelle Lee.

What follows are the highlights of our interview.

Right before the holidays, on December 22, 2015, the USPTO suffered a major power failure. Everything is back to normal now, but I wanted to ask Director Lee about where we stand and if she could confirm no data had been lost. Director Lee explained things are indeed back to normal and no data was compromised.

LEE: Yes. So we are fully up and running as before, and we have been for a while now. No data was lost, and it was really an unprecedented outage of our online systems caused by an electrical failure to the data center that was owned and operated by contractors. It was not a failure of our IT systems or the result of foul play. And I have to say, Gene, the dedicated team of USPTO employees mobilized and immediately stabilized and restored the systems. They worked around the clock when the outage occurred, during the holidays, to restore customer service and we were, again, fully operational within a matter of days. That’s a real testament to the incredible hard work, the incredible dedication of so many employees here at the PTO working very hard and really wanting to do what’s in the best interest of the stakeholders to get those services up and running. So everything is up and running as normal. We did not lose data. And we’re conducting careful forensics and we’re looking to incorporate what we learn into further improvements to our system. Actually, not our systems, but the third-party systems that feed our systems. So it’s not a lost opportunity, but we’re glad to have it up and running, and I give all the kudos to the team.

One of the initiatives that will, in my opinion, pay the most dividends in terms of enhancing patent quality is the restructuring of the patent classification system in cooperation with the European Union. On this point, our conversation went as follows:

LEE: : [E]ven if you look at our Cooperative Patent Classification System or CPC, Gene, when we converted from the US classification system to CPC, that conversion too supported enhanced quality. The more countries that classify their patents and their prior art using the same classification makes it easier for all examiners across the globe to find the most relevant art quickly and efficiently. We have no fewer than 19 countries participating to varying degrees in the CPC and more signing on each day. So these are important international initiatives that also increase the quality of patents that not only the USPTO issues but all of the participating countries, and that’s critical.

QUINN: Yes, and that last piece is extremely important and sometimes, we talk about these things and people will say “oh, well, I don’t really understand why that’s all that important and that just seems like it’s just fluff,” but the classification reboot is as substantive as it can be. You talk to all the old-time examiners and one of the reasons that they tell me that they think that examination used to be so much better, in their opinion, was that the system for classification was better; it wasn’t electronic. But all the examiners knew where to look to find the things that were relevant and if you didn’t know where to look you could ask colleagues and somebody would know where to look and they would tell you exactly which bin to search and you would go there and you would find exactly what you’re looking for. And then that sort of seemed to get out of control as innovation started exploding in a bunch of different areas and the system didn’t keep up with new classes of innovation. So I really think that that is one of the most important initiatives that the patent system has undertaken over the last handful of years, maybe even over the last generation.

LEE: I couldn’t agree with you more, Gene. And our US Patent Classification System had not been updated in decades. You and I know how quickly technology changes, right? So we were certainly overdue for an update and a refresh of the categories and the buckets into which we classify. But I think the power of the Cooperative Patent Classification System is that we have now so many countries signing on. So if collectively we all work towards the same classification system, you can imagine the efficiencies and advantages gained from– by accessing the most relevant prior art, especially foreign prior art that’s hard to get your hands on. That’s very powerful.

One thing is clear after my interview with Director Lee. There remains a lot on her plate. While there is only one year remaining in the Obama Administration, she is not ready to slow down, so stay tuned for more refinements in PTAB rules and more on the patent quality initiative, which she views as a long-term, ongoing effort that will go beyond her tenure as head of the agency.

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