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The Head of the United States Patent and Trade Marks Office Michelle Lee Resigns

Michelle Lee resigned from the US Patent and Trade Marks office (USPTO) on June 6, 2017.

The real reason for her sudden resignation as Director of the remains a mystery. Was she asked to resign? Did she volunteer to resign? As someone who has been in the job for barely two years, her departure leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Was there a scandal that has suddenly come to the fore, which made her position untenable?

This was a lady who had made history by becoming the first woman ever to hold the position of Under Secretary and Director of the USPTO, who is a strong advocate for women and minorities, who had presided over a period of fundamental change in the way that invalid patents were challenged, and one who had the support of many of the Tech giants which dominated much of the US Patents & Trade Marks landscape. So her sudden departure, without warning, after what appeared like a confirmation by the Trump administration barely three months ago is somewhat surprising.

Following news of her departure, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was busy praising her in a statement in which he said she had "worked tirelessly to serve our stakeholders and the American public"...the same man who is rumoured to have interviewed at least three potential candidates to replace her in recent months, as such many in the IP community remained rightly puzzled..

Earlier on in her career, she worked for Keker & Van Nest before becoming a partner at Fenwick & West LLP. She also clerked for former Judge of the Federal Circuit, Paul Michel.

Michelle Lee arguably began honing her career as a senior executive in 2003, when she was employed by Google to head their patents and patent strategy section as deputy general counsel. Here among her notable work included advising the tech giant on it's acquisition of YouTube and participating in Nortel Networks 2009 $4.5 billion Patent auction.

In 2012, she joined the USPTO as director of the agency's newly opened Silicon Valley office. Lee became deputy director of the USPTO in 2014, and led it as acting director when the director position was vacant. It was in October 2014 that the then President Barack Obama nominated her as Director, with Senate confirming her in 2015.

When Donald Trump became president, more than 60 companies in the Tech sector including the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Samsung and others sent a letter to the new president and Secretary Ross urging them to keep Lee as Director. And when in March the USPTO responded to a freedom of information request by renowned University of Missouri Law professor Denis Crouch, as to who was the director of the USPTO, it was roundly understood within IP circles that Lee would continue serving.

But Michelle Lee has also presided over a troubled tenure as head of the USPTO. Some of her critics have pointed to her implementation of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) trial inter partes review proceedings as favouring infringers and thus unconscionable. Similarly, there have been accusations that her time at Google meant that her approach to certain matters was heavily biased towards a view from behind the lens of a tech giant, as opposed to the viewpoint of SMEs and individual inventors.

Her supporters say the fact that Lee became Director at a time when Patent trolls / NPEs were terrorising the US Patent landscape explains many of Lee's stringent actions as Director. During this period, too many low-quality patents were being awarded, especially in the software patents space, with many such weak patents then subsequently being used as a basis for litigation costing millions of dollars. As such her supporters say her actions were justified because the US Patent and Trade Marks office needed a strong leader who could challenge and act to remedy the anomalies in the system, or at least begin reversing what had become a notorious trend.

With the troubles that have hounded previous directors of the USPTO in recent years, it will be interesting to see who President Trump nominates as Director to replace Michelle Lee. For now, Joseph Matal, the Associate Solicitor in the USPTO, will act as interim director.

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